Young, old horses test skills at Oaklawn this weekend
This is the kind of Oaklawn Saturday that fans come talking about seasoned veterans and leave enraptured with new discoveries.
Older horses get top billing, which they have earned, in the Grade 3 $600,000 Razorback Handicap. It’s hard to be indifferent about a race with three racing millionaires, which the Razorback boasts in Rated R Superstar, Last Samurai and Long Range Toddy.
Earlier, some high-priced youngsters with top connections make their first starts in a series of maiden races. What owner of an untested 3-year-old isn’t smitten with Derby fever by now?
If nothing else, the Razorback serves as a reference point for Oaklawn historians. Half of the 10 older horses entered are local stakes winners, even if matching horses by race and trainer requires some doing.
Hall of Fame trainer Wayne Lukas has two such starters. Caddo River, in a new barn, won the Smarty Jones and finished second in the Arkansas Derby in 2021 for Brad Cox. The homebred son of Hard Spun-Pangburn especially likes it at Oaklawn, where Shortleaf Stables master John Ed Anthony is the career leader in races won by an owner.
Lukas also sends out 5-yearold Last Samurai, a two-time Oaklawn stakes winner last season for former assistant Dallas Stewart. Owned by the late Willis Horton, First Samurai’s son exceeded, with his Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap triumph, his Grade 1 placing in the 2021 Arkansas Derby.
Rated R Superstar, another two-time stakes winner in the 2021-22 season, won his first of three Oaklawn black-type races in the 2010 Essex Handicap for trainer Cippy Contreras. Owner Danny Caldwell made a judicious claim of $50,000 for the Kodiak Kowboy gelding off an Oaklawn victory in 2021, then last year watched the old-timer take the Essex a second time and the Fifth Season with Federico Villafranco training. He also repeated in the Governor’s Cup at Remington Park in Caldwell’s home state.
Now with Martin Villafranco the listed trainer, his 66 starts and earnings of more than $1.7 million, most of any Razorback starter, RRS is back for more. He turned 10 recently, late in the day for any horse, especially one so pace-dependent, but
his Poteau, Oklahoma, owner is here to race. If any horse should know when it’s game day, here’s the one.
“I do, when I handicap the race, see a lot of speed,” Caldwell said. “Of course, we get that extra sixteenth (after finishing third in his Fifth Season mile defense) and a longer stretch, which makes a huge difference for us.”
One last moment in Memory Lane brings us to Long Range Toddy, first-division winner of the 2019 Rebel when trained by Steve Asmussen and owned by Horton, getting a ride from Jon Court worthy of a parade down Central Avenue in beating a heavily favored Bob Baffert trainee. The now 7-year-old can earn greater acclaim today in a race that 2017 winner Gun Runner went on to be Horse of the Year.
Brad Cox, for whom nothing at this track seems impossible, has the one to beat — when does he not? — in West Will Power. Winner of Keeneland’s Grade 2 Fayette last fall, Bernardini’s son is 5-6 from 13 starts and comes off a Grade 1 second in Churchill Downs’ Clark Stakes.
“Looks like a good spot to get him going,” said Cox, who entered Oaklawn-raced Victory Formation (a winner) and Angel of Empire in today’s Grade 2 Risen Star Derby prep at Fair Grounds. “Hopefully, he gets a good trip and he should be tough. He’s doing really, really well. The last few works have been phenomenal at Fair Grounds. Looking forward to getting him started this year.”
West Will Power is early 2-1 choice from post six with lastout Fifth Season winner Ginobili next at 5-2 and Law Professor at 7-2. Ricardo Santana Jr. won the Fifth Season aboard Ginobili with minimal exertion after the Munnings gelding took the Grade 2 Pat O’Brien at Del Mar and ran second in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland.
“He’s training super, really training well,” trainer Peter Miller said. “We’re looking forward to it. It’s a tougher race. He’s got a lot of speed, but he doesn’t need the lead. So, we can kind of let Ricardo play it the way it comes up. If someone goes crazy, we’ll sit; if we get an easy lead, we’ll take it.”
Others in the Razorback, which goes as race 9 of 10 at 4:42 p.m., are Trademark, Hero Status and Keystone Field.
As mentioned, some nicely-bred 3-year-old first-time starters dot the undercard. Cox sends out homebreds Heroic Move (Quality Road) in race 5 (3:35 p.m.) and Miracle Worker in the seventh for Gary and Mary West. Heroic Move goes a mile while Miracle Worker (leading North American sire Into Mischief) tries six furlongs. Also in the seventh (4:38 p.m.) is expensive yearling purchase Mullikin, trained by Rodolphe Brisset and with the same sire, Violence, as juvenile champion Forte.
First post is 12:30 p.m. on the season’s first four-day weekend (complete with a Monday card). Four-day racing (Thursday-Sunday) begins in March.