Any thought that Shotgun Kowboy would get an uncontested lead in the Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park Saturday was quickly dashed by jockey Mike Smith aboard 1-2 race favorite Mor Spirit.
Smith and his mount, a 4-year-old son of Eskendereya out of the Dixie Union mare Im a Dixie Girl, came out swinging — figuratively, of course — straight from the gate, battling with Shotgun Kowboy through an opening half in a quick :46.63 and six panels in 1:10.81 (nearly 3/5 of a second faster than the Rebel two races later).
At the head of the stretch, it looked like the aggressive strategy might backfire, as first Madefromlucky and then Dazzling Gem appeared to draw on even terms with Mor Spirit, as Shotgun Kowboy began to fade.
However, Dazzling Gem failed to sustain his rally and More Spirit continued to cling to a narrow lead over Madefromlucky at the 1/8-pole. Under continued urging from Smith, the Bob Baffert trainee asserted his class in the final furlong, drawing clear by 2 ½ lengths while completing the 1 1/16-mile journey in 1:41.62 (1.38 seconds faster than Malagacy’s winning time in the Rebel).
“Brilliant trip and he was leading up to an effort like this, to be honest with you,” Smith said after the race. “His first race back [since the Kentucky Derby, a fourth-place finish in the Grade I Malibu on Dec. 26] was seven-eighths, which was too short for him, but he still [ran] sneaky well. Came back his second race going long [in the Grade II San Antonio], which he wants to do, but he ran into Hoppertunity, who’s a Grade 1 winner.
“He ran extremely well in that race. I actually had to go after someone probably a little too early. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have waited longer with him. Not sure the outcome would have been different. And today, he was ready — really ready. He ‘jumped’ well and he was on the bridle the whole way and won really nice.”
Mor Spirit paid $3.00, $2.80 and $2.40. The 9-year-old horse-for-course — he’s now won five races and been in the money eight times in nine starts at Oaklawn Park — Domain’s Rap rallied to finish second, returning $6.40 and $3.20, while Madefromlucky faded to third, paying $3.00. Dazzling Gem checked in fourth.
The $1 exacta returned $17.10, the 50-cent trifecta paid $27.65 and the 10-cent superfecta was good for $22.40.