2023 Essex Handicap Odds & Whitmore Stakes Picks

The only Graded-stakes action in the US on a quiet weekend is at Oaklawn Park, where the G3 Essex Handicap takes center stage with a cast-list containing G3 course-and-distance winner Last Samurai and the Brad Cox pair Forza Di Oro and Tawny Port. That’s backed up by the G3 Whitmore, headed by Tejano Twist, Edge To Edge and Cogburn in what is sure to be a thrilling speed contest.

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Essex Handicap

G3, $500,000, 1m 1/16 dirt, 4yo+, 4.54pm CT

Some Oaklawn Park favourites come together again for the Essex, the main event at the Arkansas circuit on Saturday, with a big purse – for this level – up for grabs and bragging rights on the line.

Pride of place goes to Last Samurai, who has won three times here including what was probably a career-best in last month’s G3 Razorback over course and distance, when he came running off the turn and finished off his race well, winning by a length and a half. Back in fourth was the remarkable old-timer Rated R Superstar, beaten more than 12 lengths, while Keystone Field was never in it and trailed in a distant seventh.

That was Last Samurai’s first win since the G2 Oaklawn Handicap last April, although two starts ago he outran his 51-1 odds to take fourth in the G1 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, just a length and a quarter behind recent G1 winner Stilleto Boy. There may be more to come, especially at this track.

The ten-year-old Rated R Superstar won this race a year ago, a weaker version in which he rallied gamely to win by two and a quarter lengths. His two wins since then have come in stakes at little Remington Park and hitting the board here may be his limit.

Brad Cox takes two shots at the bullseye, with the lightly raced Forza Di Oro probably the pick after his eyecatching performance in the G3 Louisiana at the Fair Grounds over a mile-sixteenth, when trying to go gate-to-wire and beaten only two necks into third. That hinted at a return to something like his best and he’s a danger if he can build on it.

His barnmate Tawny Port – a decent if non-staying seventh in last year’s G1 Kentucky Derby – needs to rebound from two flat efforts, most recently when fifth in the G3 Mineshaft at the Fair Grounds last month. That was his first start off a five-month layoff and he should at least be sharper now.

Two stakes debutants are well worth bettors’ attention. Call Me Fast has won twice here this year, last time wiring the field to narrowly win an allowance optional claimer over a mile, while Vittorio, on his first start for Bill Mott and his first for ten months, chased home the highly regarded Charge It in an AOC at Gulfstream over a mile-sixteenth. It’s notable that he travels for this when there are other opportunities closer to home.

Classic Causeway returns to the main track after carving out success on the lawn, winning the G1 Belmont Derby in July, but he was entered on turf last weekend at Tampa Bay Downs before being scratched and this switch looks a little desperate.

2023 Essex Handicap Odds & Betting Pick

HorseJockeyOdds by Jazzsports
Silver ProspectorRicardo Santana, Jr.+600
VittorioMartin Garcia+300
Rated R SuperstarDavid Cabrera+2000
Call Me FastFrancisco Arrieta+1500
Classic CausewayFlavien Prat+1500
Necker IslandNik Juarez+800
Forza Di OroFlorent Geroux+350
Tawny PortRafael Bejarano+1500
Keystone FieldIsaac Castillo+1500
Last SamuraiCristian A. Torres+250

Last Samurai is solid but it’s worth taking a chance on the upgrading VITTORIO, who is sure to move forward from his comeback and looks full of untapped potential.

Whitmore Stakes

G3, $200,000, 6f dirt, 4yo+, 4.22pm CT

A closely matched group of mid-weight sprinters goes to the gate for the Whitmore, and although none of them are as able as the Breeders’ Cup winner the race is named for, working out which will be better on the day is a thorny problem.

There is plenty of solid recent form here, notably through Tejano Twist, who was thwarted in his bid for a four-timer by no less a celebrity than Gunite, who brushed him aside by four lengths in a stakes over course and distance in January, in which Miles Ahead was a length and three-quarters further back in third and Flash Of Mischief another length and a quarter away in fifth.

Gunite was then runner-up in the G3 Riyadh Dirt Sprint in Saudi Arabia and would be a very heavy favourite if he were here, so Tejano Twist’s performance shows up well in this company.

Flash Of Mischief had previously torn up the track when winning a stakes over course and distance in December, romping by seven and three-quarter lengths with Baytown Bear beaten a long way into fifth, another nod to Tejano Twist’s chances.

His barnmate Edge To Edge is two-for-two over course and distance this year, and makes his first start in stakes since 2020 after seeing off crack sprinter CZ Rocket with ease in an allowance last time, his usual trailblazing tactics serving him well. He could be a threat to all on the front end and should confirm the placings with Morello, who was a no-show last of four on that occasion and is an inconsistent sort who is struggling to recapture his decent form of 12 months ago.

Morello’s barnmate Cogburn has a two-for-three record here, and made a big impression on his return from more than eight months on the bench when making most in a six-furlong allowance last month, toughing it out to get home by a neck, with Spankster doing his best work late for third, a half-length further back.

Previously runner-up in the G3 Chick Lang at Pimlico, Cogburn has scope to improve further and may move up a way from that comeback effort. Spankster franked the form next time out with victory in an allowance optional claimer over course and distance and deserves a first try at stakes level.

Pirate Rick won four straight in minor company before finding the transition to Graded stakes beyond him, off the board in three G3s including the Tom Fool at Aqueduct just two weeks ago. Empire Of Gold has been consistent at third-tier tracks but is likely to be out of his depth at this level.

Whitmore Stakes Odds & Betting Prediction

HorseJockeyOdds by Jazzsports
SpanksterDavid Cabrera+800
Tejano TwistFrancisco Arrieta+300
Miles AheadMartin Garcia+1500
Edge to EdgeNik Juarez+400
Empire of GoldLane J. Luzzi+1500
Baytown BearMaclovio Enriquez Jr.+2000
Flash of MischiefCristian A. Torres+450
Pirate RickRafael Bejarano+1200
CogburnRicardo Santana, Jr.+350
MorelloFlavien Prat+1500

Tejano Twist is a threat but his barnmate EDGE TO EDGE, in hot form this year and with a front-running style that could be an important weapon, can come out on top.

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