02/08/2007 1:00AM

Mr. Pursuit looking even better


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Mr. Pursuit returns to Oaklawn on Saturday for the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap a more accomplished runner than he was here a year ago, and he made good use of his time then. Mr. Pursuit won his maiden race and a first-level allowance here last meet, but since then has gone on to win the $275,000 Oklahoma Derby and the $75,000 Governor's Cup, both at Remington.

On the strength of his resume, he will start as the 118-pound highweight in the Essex, a 1 1/16-mile race that drew a competitive field of 11 older horses. Among them are Rotary, who is seeking his fourth straight win; More Than Regal, who won four stakes last year; and Jonesboro, a front-running threat and a son of Mom's Command, who died last week.

Mr. Pursuit comes into the Essex off a runner-up finish in the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston on Jan. 27. He was the highweight in that race and finished 3 1/4 lengths behind the winner, Student Council. The race was run over a track rated good.

"He might not have liked that racetrack," said Joe Petalino, who trains Mr. Pursuit. "It was pretty muddy. I don't think he cared for it too much.

"We'll see what he does at Oaklawn. He seemed to like that racetrack pretty good last year."

Mr. Pursuit was a seven-length maiden winner here, came back and won the allowance, and then ran third in the $100,000 Northern Spur. Saturday, he will break from post 7 under Cliff Berry.

"He'll be a little off of it," said Petalino. "That seems to be his best race, not too far back."

Rotary's last three wins have come at 1 1/16 miles, his latest in a $100,000 optional claiming prep for the Essex. In razor-sharp form, he could make an impact in his stakes debut Saturday.

"He seems to have gotten better at this point, and he's run out of conditions, so it looks like a good time to take a shot at the big money," said Don Von Hemel, who trains Rotary and has given the mount to Larry Sterling Jr.

Red Raymond comes out of an optional claimer at Fair Grounds that has produced five next-race winners. He was second by a neck in that race.

"He's trained super all winter, and hopefully we can pick up part of it anyhow, if we can't get it all," said Bob Holthus, who trains Red Raymond.