Michael Lund Petersen's Mor Spirit was the more than two-length victor of Saturday's $250,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park, piloted to the winner's circle by none other than Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. Trained by fellow Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, the heavily favored 4-year-old son of Eskendereya covered 1 1/16 miles on the fast main track in 1:41.62 to earn his first victory since February of 2016.
“Brilliant trip and he was leading up to an effort like this, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “His first race back (since the Kentucky Derby, when fourth in the Grade 1 Malibu) was seven-eighths, which was too short for him. But he still sneaky well. Came back his second race going long, 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 broke right with the speedy Shotgun Kowboy, and Smith kept the colt right next to that rival through solid early fractions of :23.48 and :46.63. Second-choice Madefromlucky was three-wide while prompting the pace a half-length back in third, and it was another several lengths back to Dazzling Gem and then Domain's Rap.
Mid-way down the backstretch Madefromlucky dropped back a bit to catch a breather before the stretch run, but Mor Spirit seemed to need no such break as he continued on a similar pace to take the lead in the far turn. Madefromlucky was still three-wide as Shotgun Kowboy began to bow out, and Dazzling Gem appeared poised to make a giant move approaching the head of the lane.
It was Mor Spirit in front of Madefromlucky by a half-length at the top of the stretch, but Dazzling Gem was looming a threat along the outside. Try as he might, Madefromlucky did not have enough to get to Mor Spirit, and seemed to stop trying at about the sixteenth pole. The 9-year-old Domain's Rap range a huge race to finish second, closing from nearly seven lengths off the early pace to be beaten just over two lengths in second. Madefromlucky had to settle for third, and Dazzling Gem was fourth.
“I was really happy where I was at,” Smith continued. “He put me right into the race. I actually was going to try and be a little more aggressive and take the lead. But he was in such a good rhythm where he was, I was happy with that. Heading for home, a horse came up to his outside, he dug in and I just stayed a little busy on him. Just because it's his first time here. You're so close to the crowd here, which is pretty cool but sometimes it will get a horse looking around a little bit. So I just stayed more or less just after him to keep his attention, and he won very nice today.”
Bred in Pennsylvania by the Elkstone Group, Mor Spirit was an $85,000 yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall sale, and later commanded $650,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-year-olds in training sale. Mor Spirit was on the Kentucky Derby trail early on, winning the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity and finishing second in both the G2 San Felipe and the G1 Santa Anita Derby. He was 10th in the Kentucky Derby behind Nyquist, and did not race again until December. The four-time winner from 11 career starts has been rounding back into form for Baffert, and the Essex builds Mor Spirit's earnings to over $880,000.
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