02/21/2002 12:00AM

Essex next step for Crafty Shaw

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Crafty Shaw, who won last year's Grade 3 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, is on the verge of establishing himself as one of the top handicap horses in the Midwest. A blossoming 4-year-old, Crafty Shaw goes for his fourth straight win Saturday in the Grade 3, $75,000 Essex Handicap.

The 1 1/16-mile race is the first graded race of the meet, and the first of two local preps for

the Grade 1, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, which is the seasonal goal for Crafty Shaw. It is also the goal of others in the Essex, which drew a field of six, including Remington Rock, Maysville Slew, and Arctic Boy.

Crafty Shaw has made the transition from promising 3-year-old to serious 4-year-old largely because of the patient handling of his connections, who gave him seven months of rest after he sustained a stress fracture while finishing seventh in last year's Grade 2 Arkansas Derby.

The time off has paid dividends for owner Lucky Seven Stable and trainer Pete Vestal. Crafty Shaw has won three of four starts since returning from the layoff, his most recent a determined neck win over Drewman despite a world of trouble in the $75,000 Diplomat Way at Fair Grounds on Jan. 20.

"I think he's getting better all the time," said Vestal. "He's bigger and stronger than he was last year, as you'd hope a horse would mature physically from their 3- to 4-year-old year. I attribute some of that to the forced layoff he had when he hurt himself in the Arkansas Derby.

"In the long run, it worked to his advantage because he's come back stronger."

In his race before the Diplomat Way, Crafty Shaw went wire to wire to win the $50,000 Prairie Bayou at Turfway Park on Dec. 15. He appears to be the speed of the Essex, but has rated before. "He is not one-dimensional," said Vestal, who has given the mount to James Lopez.

Remington Rock, an 8-year-old, does his best running from off the pace, and will return to his best distance Saturday after posting a strong mile win in an Oaklawn allowance Jan. 27. Before that race, he finished second to San Pedro in the $75,000 Louisiana Handicap, 2 1/4 lengths clear of Valhol, who returned in his next start to win the $125,000 Whirlaway at Fair Grounds.

"He's good right now," said Richard Jackson, who trains Remington Rock. "I know 8 sounds real old, but I can't take anything away from him."

o Purses for overnight races at Oaklawn will be increased $1,000 a race beginning Saturday. The increase is due in part to a 38 percent increase in offtrack handle this meet compared with the same period in 2001.