The lone graded stakes action of the week in the U.S. takes place at Oaklawn Park on Saturday when older horses travel 1 1/16 miles in the $500,000 Essex H. (G3) and six furlongs in the $200,000 Whitmore (G3).
The inconsistent Last Samurai has run his best races over the Oaklawn strip, though usually when least expected. After taking the meet’s division highlight, the Oaklawn H. (G2), as a 12-1 shot last season, Last Samurai went into a seven-race slump. However, following a decent fourth in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) in late January, the D. Wayne Lukas charge returned to his Oaklawn base and lit up the tote board at 8-1 in the Razorback H. (G3) four weeks ago.
Classic Causeway, whose victories last term included the Belmont Derby (G1) on turf as well as the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and Sam F. Davis (G3) on the main track, returns from a layoff dating to late October. The Kenny McPeek trainee was last seen on the dirt in the Ohio Derby (G3) last June, when he finished third to the returning rival Tawny Port.
In addition to multiple Grade 3 winner Tawny Port, who split a nine-horse field in the Feb. 18 Mineshaft (G3) at Fair Grounds in his season debut, trainer Brad Cox also saddles Forza Di Oro, a gallant third in the Jan. 21 Louisiana (G3) after setting the pace and a likely combatant with Classic Causeway in the early stages of the Essex.
Other notables include 10-year-old fan favorite Rated R Superstar, who sprung an 8-1 surprise in last year’s Essex, and the Bill Mott-trained Vittorio, who makes his stakes debut after finishing second to Charge It in a Feb. 5 Gulfstream Park allowance.
The Steve Asmussen-trained Cogburn is among the leading contenders in the Whitmore. A four-year-old with just six lifetime starts behind him, Cogburn returned from a 7 1/2-month layoff on Feb. 5 and captured a second-level allowance by a neck following a prolonged early duel. The speedster was narrowly beaten in two prior stakes attempts last season in the Bachelor S. at Oaklawn and the Chick Lang (G3) at Pimlico.
Tejano Twist and Miles Ahead, second and third, respectively, behind Gunite in the Jan. 28 King Cotton S., both figure strongly, while Edge to Edge enters off back-to-back allowances over the track and distance.