Not often does a race fall into the wheelhouse of Blinkers Off for multiple reasons. There are a lot of races with Curlin babies in them. There are a lot of races with Illinois-bred horses in them. That does not often overlap, particularly at the stakes level…but in Saturday’s Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park, it does. Ride On Curlin, after his dazzling return in an allowance opening weekend at Oaklawn, returns to face older horses in stakes company for the first time. Furthermore, the eight-horse field features two multiple stakes-winning Illinois-breds. I Got It All swept the stakes for three-year-old Illinois-breds last year, and added an open stakes win in the Straight Line on the Million undercard last year. His only stakes try against older horses came in the Lightning Jet Handicap at Hawthorne on December 6. The bettors sent him off the 7/10 choice, but 9/1 shot Luv Bandit got there first. That win in last year’s Lightning Jet was Luv Bandit’s fourth stakes win, though he has yet to attempt open stakes company. The six-year-old gelding’s first career open stakes try comes Saturday, in the Essex Handicap.
Saturday, February 14: Oaklawn Race 9, Essex Handicap (Listed), 1 1/16 miles over the dirt, post time 5:09pm Central
Selections: Golden Lad (8), Ride on Curlin (7), I Got It All (3)
Longshot: Luv Bandit (6)
The key to this race seems to be what to make of Golden Lad: does his well-beaten fifth in the Hal’s Hope (GIII) suggest he is not the same horse, or will he improve second off the lay?
A later-blooming type, the five-year-old son of Medaglia d’Oro debuted in May of 2013; he graduated second out, in July. It took him three tries to clear N1X at Gulfstream. That first allowance win began a four-race win streak which ended with a victory in the Razorback Handicap (GIII) at Oaklawn. He was a troubled fifth in the Oaklawn Handicap (GII) last year, but after faltering in the Pimlico Special (GIII) in May, he dropped off the radar for about eight months. He returned January 10 in the Hal’s Hope (GIII) at Gulfstream. In that race he was a well-beaten fifth after an early speed duel with Valid.
Golden Lad bit off more than he could chew for his first race back in eight months. Since then, Valid returned to gut out a win in the Hooper (GIII), and Hal’s Hope winner Lea finished a game second behind Constitution in the Donn (GI). They underscored the quality of the race, and Golden Lad should make a better showing against easier here. He is a perfect three-for-three going a mile and a sixteenth, and his stalking style should give him first run at Joy Boy and Rocket Time. Joy Boy likes the distance, but will not likely get the easy lead he wants with Rocket Time there, and does not typically hold up against this class of horse. Rocket Time, coming off a win over the likes of Hard Aces and Fordubai in the Tenacious Handicap last out, will likely be fast enough to be a nuisance to Joy Boy for a while, but not carry his speed a mile and a sixteenth against this calibre of runner.
Like Golden Lad, Ride On Curlin also comes into the Essex second off a layoff. Unlike Golden Lad, he steps up in class here. His first race back was a six-furlong N2X at Oaklawn, in which he overcame a pokey start to win by a late-running head. Though all three of his career wins have come at sprint distances, he has finished in the money in races as long as the 1 3/16 mile Preakness (GI), and has never missed the board in five starts at Oaklawn. Though he has run well from close to the pace or off of it, expect to see him farther off than he was in the Derby preps at OP last year given that Jon Court has the call again. He is a legitimate contender, but Golden Lad gets the slight nod because he will get first run at the pacesetters, and because he may go off at a slightly better price.
For a third selection, it was close between Code West and I Got It All. Code West should have a good stalking place, and is a strong 8-3-5-0 at races of similar distance. Still, trainer Boyd Caster’s ungraded stakes record is an anemic 3-35, and Code West’s only win for that barn was against a weaker stakes field at Remington. I Got It All can win a race anywhere from right on the front to back in midpack, but has yet to stretch this far on fast dirt. The slight nod goes to I Got It All. Channing Hill returns to the irons; in four starts with Hill aboard, I Got It All has yet to have a bad race. Though he has yet to beat older, he has been competitive, and his recent speeds put him right in line with this crowd. Though his only attempt at two turns was a well-beaten eighth in the Iowa Derby (GIII), that was over slop, and he has turned in enough good efforts over fast dirt to give him a chance here. He should also go off a significantly better price than the more proven and better-known Code West, and trainer Tom Swearingen has a juicy +$3.84 ROI (as well as a respectable 50% in-the-money rate) in ungraded stakes races.
For a price to spice up exotics, consider the other Illinois-bred, Luv Bandit. Though his stakes win two back was at six furlongs, he won last out at a mile and has done most of his running at longer distances. He has a solid 18-5-5-3 record going similar distances as the Essex. He made his Oaklawn debut January 18, and prevailed in a one-mile AOC over Chicago-area stalwart Hattaash and next-out winner Bruvver Max. Shaun Bridgmohan, a blazing 26% on the Oaklawn meet, returns to the irons from that outing. This is a steep step up in class from that ilk, and he will probably not win against this classier company. However, this honest and consistent runner has shown enough to suggest he could hit the board at a nice price.