Stakes Advance - Essex & Hot Springs

Compiled by Robert Yates

Godolphin homebreds First Mission and Nash entered 2024 near the top of their respective divisions. Now, both are trying to erase almost four months of frustration for their connections.

“I guess so,” trainer Brad Cox said. “That would be a way to sum it up.”

Both Cox trainees have an opportunity to hit the reset button Saturday at Oaklawn as program favorites for the $600,000 G3-Essex Handicap for older horses at 1 1/16 miles and $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes for 3-year-olds at one mile.

The stakes doubleheader highlights a 10-race program that begins at 12:30 p.m. (Central). Probable post time for the Hot Springs, the eighth race, is 4:22 p.m. The Essex goes as the ninth race, with probable post time 4:55 p.m.

First Mission is among nine horses entered in the Essex, a major local prep for the $1.25 million G2-Oaklawn Handicap at 1 1/8 miles April 20. First Mission captured the 8 ½-furlong $400,000 G3-Lexington Stakes for 3-year-olds last April at Keeneland and concluded 2023 with a runner-up finish, beaten a nose, in the nine-furlong $600,000 G2-Clark Stakes Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs.

First Mission was among the favorites for the $3 million G1-Pegasus World Cup Invitational Jan. 27 at Gulfstream, but he bombed in the 1 1/8-mile race and finished ninth, beaten 20 ½ lengths by National Treasure.

“Really like what we’ve seen from First Mission over the last month,” Cox said. “Kind of backed off him just a little bit after the Pegasus. Don’t really think he liked the track there at Gulfstream. Didn’t take to the kickback. Never was involved, like we thought he would be. We just regrouped with him and thought we would back up to a Grade 3 as opposed to looking at Grade 1s for the time being. We’re hoping he gets back on track.”

After winning the Lexington, First Mission was the 5-2 second choice on the morning line for last May’s Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, before being scratched with a leg issue. He returned to win a second-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles Oct. 14 at Keeneland, then ran second against older, more experienced runners in the Clark.

“Thought he was really good off the layoff last fall and was excited about the Pegasus,” Cox said. “It just didn’t work out quite as well as we thought or hoped and here we are.”

Essex entrants from the rail out: Ain’t Life Grand, Martin Garcia to ride, 117 pounds, 5-1 on the morning line; Lure Him In, Edwin Gonzalez, 118, 6-1; Wizard of Westwood, Ramon Vazquez, 117, 8-1; Great Escape, Harry Hernandez, 118, 15-1; Magic Tap, Keith Asmussen, 118, 7-2; War Campaign, Emmanuel Esquivel, 119, 9-2; Time for Trouble, Rafael Bejarano, 117, 12-1; Seize the Night, Cristian Torres, 118, 12-1; and First Mission, Florent Geroux, 121, 5-2.

War Campaign will be making his first start since winning the $200,000 Tinsel Stakes Dec. 16 at Oaklawn for trainer Phil Sims. War Campaign, racing over a muddy surface, covered 1 1/8 miles in a meet-best 1:49.80.

Magic Tap (Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen) and Seize the Night (Eddie Milligan Jr.) exit second-place finishes in stakes races for older horses earlier this year at Oaklawn. Magic Tap was beaten three-quarters of a length in the $600,000 G3-Razorback Handicap at 8 ½-furlongs Feb. 24. Seize the Night was beaten a half-length in the one-mile $150,000 Fifth Season Jan. 27.

Cox bids for his second consecutive Hot Springs victory with Triple Crown nominee Nash, who has competed against some of the country’s top Kentucky Derby prospects in two starts this year at the Fair Grounds.

A son of Medaglia d’Oro, Nash finished second behind Track Phantom in the $200,000 G3-Lecomte Stakes Jan. 20 and second behind Tuscan Sky in an entry-level allowance race Feb. 17. Both races were 1 1/16 miles. Track Phantom is the 3-1 program favorite for the $1 million G2-Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles Saturday at Fair Grounds. Tuscan Sky is unbeaten in two career starts for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher.

While Nash has been favored in 4 of 5 career starts, he only has one victory – a front-running 10 ¼-length maiden special weight romp at 1 1/16 miles Nov. 12 at Churchill Downs.

Still eligible for a first-level allowance, Nash (7-5) returns to stakes company in the Hot Springs, which has drawn a field of nine.

“Talented horse,” Cox said. “He obviously ran behind a very good horse here in Track Phantom. He ran a good race last time. I think that he was beaten by another very good horse. He’s going to have to step up. It’s a solid, competitive race. There’s nothing easy about it at all. We’re hoping that he takes the little cut back in the two-turn mile and see how it goes.”

Nash has 13 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, but Cox said he isn’t looking beyond the Hot Springs.

“I’m kind of a one race at a time kind of guy,” Cox said. “We’ll let him determine what he wants to do after he runs Saturday.”

The Hot Springs, which was run on the Arkansas Derby undercard in 2023, also drew Triple Crown nominees Otto the Conqueror and Carbone for Asmussen.

Otto the Conqueror won the $300,000 Springboard Mile Stakes Dec. 15 at Remington Park, but he hasn’t started since finishing sixth in the Oaklawn’s $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes Feb. 3. Carbone won his first two career starts by a combined 12 front-running lengths before finishing seventh in the Southwest and sixth in the $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes Feb. 24. The Southwest and Rebel were Oaklawn’s second and third Kentucky Derby points races, respectively, this year.

Magic Grant and Mena finished 10th and 11th, respectively, in the Rebel. Count Dracula exits a second in the $100,000 off-the-turf Black Gold Stakes at 1 1/16 miles March 2 at the Fair Grounds. The speedy Frost Free removes blinkers for his two-turn debut after a front-running entry-level allowance victory March 1 at Oaklawn. Frost Free has never raced around two turns.

Footprint adds blinkers after running third in a first-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 24 at Oaklawn for Kenny McPeek, who also trains Count Dracula.