Hot Springs, Ark. (Friday, Feb. 13, 2015) – Ride On Curlin has never won a stakes race, but he’s the 2-1 morning line favorite for the $100,000 Essex Handicap for older horses Saturday at Oaklawn. The 1 1/16-mile Essex goes as race nine on a special 10-race program. Probable post time is 5:09 p.m. (Central). Racing begins Saturday at 1 p.m. (Central.).
A 4-year-old son of Curlin, Ride On Curlin is among eight older horses entered in the Essex, the second major local prep for the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 11.
Ride On Curlin is scheduled to break from post 7 under Jon Court and carry top weight of 119 pounds. There is plenty of speed inside Ride On Curlin (notably Joy Boy and Rocket Time), which trainer Billy Gowan said he believes could benefit his colt in his return to stakes competition, and racing around two turns.
“There looks like there’s a whole bunch of speed in that race,” Gowan said. “Hopefully, it will set up where we can close a little bit into it. That’s what I’m hoping.”
Runner-up in last year’s Arkansas Derby and Preakness, Ride On Curlin won a second-level allowance sprint in his 2015 debut Jan. 15. It was his first start since being eased in the Belmont Stakes June 7.
Ride On Curlin completed preparations for the Essex with an easy half-mile breeze Wednesday morning (:49.60) under regular exercise rider Bryan Beccia.
“He was in hand the whole way,” Gowan said. “He worked really good. Came out of it good.”
The Essex will mark the sixth Oaklawn start for Ride On Curlin, who also ran third in last year’s Rebel (G2) and Southwest (G3) before the Arkansas Derby. Conversely, Rocket Time, the early 4-1 third choice for the Essex, will be making his Oaklawn debut for trainer Al Stall and owner Frank Fletcher of North Little Rock, Ark.
Rocket Time has won three consecutive races, including the $50,000 Tenacious Stakes Dec. 21 at Fair Grounds. In the mile and 70-yard Tenacious, Rocket Time earned a career-high 100 Beyer Speed Figure for his front-running 2 ½-length victory.
Rocket Time has led at every point of call in three of his four career victories, but Fletcher noted the Essex is a class test for his promising 4-year-old gelding.
“We’re probably over our head Saturday,” Fletcher said. “I had no idea that there would be this kind of competition. We may be the second or third best horse.”
Rocket Time is scheduled to break from post 2 under regular rider Calvin Borel.
Joy Boy, who drew the rail, is coming off a front-running Jan. 25 allowance/optional claiming victory for trainer Kellyn Gorder. I Got It All, Code West, For Greater Glory, Luv Bandit and Golden Lad complete the field. Code West finished second behind Carve in the $100,000 Fifth Season Stakes Jan. 16. Carve was the Essex’s 122-pound high weight, but skipped the race to await the $250,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) March 14.
Golden Lad, the 7-2 second choice on the morning line, ran the best race of his career in winning last year’s Razorback by 6 ¾ lengths for trainer Todd Pletcher. He has lost three consecutive starts since the Razorback, but Pletcher elected to return the horse to Oaklawn from his south Florida winter base. He drew post 8 and is to be ridden for the first time by Ricardo Santana Jr., Oaklawn’s two-time defending riding champion.
The complete field for the $100,000, in post position order with riders, weights and morning line odds: Joy Boy, Ramon Vazquez, 116, 10-1; Rocket Time, Calvin Borel, 117, 4-1; I Got It All, Channing Hill, 116, 8-1; Code West, Chris Landeros, 118; 9-2; For Greater Glory, Joe Rocco Jr., 114, 15-1; Luv Bandit, Shaun Bridgmohan, 114, 12-1; Ride On Curlin, Jon Court, 119, 2-1 and Golden Lad, Ricardo Santana Jr., 117, 7-2.