Exiting a career-best speed figure in the Razorback Handicap (G3) last month, Last Samurai echoed that performance and continued to showcase his penchant for the Oaklawn Park surface with an authoritative score in the March 18 $500,000 Essex Handicap (G3).
Unlike the Razorback, where Last Samurai found himself shuffled far behind the pace early, leading Oaklawn rider Cristian Torres hustled the son of Malibu Moon from the gates from the far outside post. By the time the first turn loomed, Torres had deftly angled the colt into a stalking fourth, and the pair found themselves only a few lengths behind the frontrunning Classic Causeway.
"I told Cristian the race will be won in the first turn, and if you can get around that first turn (you're good)," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said following the race. "When he was sitting third, fourth around the first turn into the backside I thought we were in pretty good shape."
Classic Causeway, making his first start on the dirt since the Ohio Derby (G3) last June, and away from action since October, established command in the opening strides, carving out fractions of :24.05 and :48.28 under a long hold from Flavien Prat. Despite his rivals inching closer into the turn, the white-faced chestnut clung to his advantage into the turn, striking the six-furlong marker in 1:12.65.
Last Samurai, advancing four-wide into the stretch, bore down on the stubborn pacesetter, drawing clear in the final sixteenth for a one-length tally.
The 5-year-old stopped the timer in 1:43.17 for 1 1/16 miles on a fast main track. Sent to post as the odds-on favorite, he returned $4 from a $2 win ticket.
Classic Causeway was 2 3/4 lengths ahead of Forza Di Oro in third.
Last Samurai, running for the silks of the late Willis Horton through his son Kevin, has continued to shine with maturity. Last Samurai, bred by Stonestreet Farm, turned in the first back-to-back stakes victories of his career in the Essex, and now looms an overwhelming favorite ahead of the April 22 $1 million Oaklawn Handicap (G2).
"The horse is just finding himself; his confidence level is way up," Lukas noted. "Cristian's confidence is way up, and mine's starting to get there."
The Oaklawn Handicap, a race that served as a breakthrough victory for Last Samurai last year, is the final race of Oaklawn's winter race series for older horses. The series began in December with the $200,000 Tinsel Stakes (Last Samurai was second by a neck to Bal Harbour).
"This is a beautiful series put together by Oaklawn and it really lets you have a little time, you're able to recover in 30 days roughly so it's a beautiful series, and I think we'll take advantage of it," Lukas said.
Enhancing his bankroll to $1,908,264, Last Samurai is one of four winners produced from the First Samurai mare Lady Samuri. The mare is also responsible for 2022 Bourbonette Oaks victress Candy Raid.