Silver State Favored in Tough Essex Handicap

HOT SPRINGS, AR (Friday, March 5, 2021) – Winchell Thoroughbreds and Willis Horton Racing’s Silver State is the 2-1 program favorite for the $500,000 Essex Handicap for older horses at 1 1/16 miles Saturday at Oaklawn.

Probable post time for the Essex, which goes as the seventh of 12 races, is 3:08 p.m. (Central). The Essex is a major local prep for the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2) April 17.

Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, Silver State is bidding for his fourth consecutive victory after the son of Hard Spun fell off the Triple Crown trail following a seventh-place finish in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) last March at Fair Grounds. Silver State resurfaced last fall and recorded two allowance victories in Kentucky before capturing the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes by a nose Jan. 23 at Oaklawn in his 2021 debut.

“He’s as beautiful as a horse can be,” Asmussen said. “For the Winchells and the Hortons to show the patience they did with him last year, they deserve to have a huge 4-year-old campaign with him and we expect it to happen.”

Among six other horses entered are Rated R Superstar and Night Ops, who won the Essex in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Rated R Superstar wheels back after finishing fifth behind Dubai World Cup-bound Mystic Guide in the $600,000 Razorback Handicap (G3) for older horses Feb. 27 at Oaklawn. Rated R Superstar was making his first start since being claimed for $50,000 out of a Jan. 30 victory at Oaklawn by four-time local leading owner Danny Caldwell.


Night Ops finished third, beaten 3 ¾ lengths in the 1-mile Fifth Season, for Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox. The Fifth Season marked the first start for Night Ops since winning the $100,000 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3) July 5 at Prairie Meadows. Night Ops opened his 2020 campaign with a third-place finish in the first division of the Fifth Season.

“It was every bit as good as it was last year in that exact race,” Cox said. “I thought it was a good race off the layoff. He had been off a while. I thought he showed up and ran his race. Probably needs a little more ground and maybe a little bit better setup and, hopefully, he’ll come back into form.”

The Essex also lured two starters from the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) Jan. 23 at Gulfstream Park in Tax (10th) and Harpers First Ride (12th).

Tax, a multiple graded stakes winner of almost $1 million for trainer Danny Gargan, returns to Hot Springs after finishing fifth in last year’s Oaklawn Handicap. Multiple stakes winner Harpers First Ride will be making his first start for Robertino Diodoro, Oaklawn’s leading trainer last year, after being privately purchased before the Pegasus. Harpers First Ride (10 of 18 overall) has recorded two workouts at Oaklawn leading up to his local debut.

“He ran real bad, but he had some issues that came up that we fixed,” Diodoro said, referring to the Pegasus. “I don’t know how he’ll stack up with these guys, but there’s good form on him. He’s a nice horse.”

The projected seven-horse Essex field from the rail out: Uphold, Fernando De La Cruz to ride, 113 pounds, 20-1 on the morning line; Harpers First Ride, David Cohen, 119, 4-1; Rated R Superstar, Ramon Vazquez, 114, 12-1; Tax, Joel Rosario, 120, 3-1; Silver State, Ricardo Santana Jr., 118, 2-1; Green Light Go, Francisco Arrieta, 116, 6-1; and Night Ops, Javier Castellano, 118, 3-1.

Also on Saturday’s card is another stakes race for older horses, the $150,000 Temperence Hill at 1 ½ miles. The 3-1 program favorite is You’re to Blame for trainer Ron Moquett and owner Staton Flurry of Hot Springs

The 7-2 second choice in the program is Campaign, who was runner-up, beaten a neck, in last year’s inaugural running for Southern California-based trainer John Sadler. Campaign was the 3-2 favorite in the 2020 Temperence Hill.