02/12/2005 12:00AM

Absent Friend finishes strong in Essex

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Absent Friend dug in through the stretch to overtake pacesetter Mauk Four and earn a half-length victory in the Grade 3, $100,000 at Oaklawn Park on Saturday. It was another 4 1/2 lengths back to Separato.

Roman Chapa rode Absent Friend, who gave the jockey his fourth stakes win in less than one month of racing at the meet.

Absent Friend ($12.60) settled about seven lengths behind the pace as Mauk Four led the field through fractions of 22.75 seconds for the opening quarter and 46.42 seconds for a half-mile, pushed along by Discreet Hero. Absent Friend began to pick off rivals on the final turn, and went on to cover 1 1/16 miles over a wet-fast track in 1:43.66.

Absent Friend earned $60,000 for his sixth win in 17 career starts. He races for H and H Ranch and is trained by Cole Norman. H and H Ranch claimed Absent Friend for $50,000 at Saratoga last August.