02/10/2005 1:00AM

'River' back against five he defeated


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The simplest approach to handicapping the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Saturday might be the best: River Mountain Rd, in his last start, defeated five of the nine rivals he will face in 1 1/16-mile Essex.

The Essex is the first graded stakes of the Oaklawn meet and the first step toward the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap.

River Mountain Rd won a one-mile allowance by a neck in his last start Jan. 23. Following him under the wire were Mauk Four in second, Arbitrate in third, Crowned King in fourth, Separato in fifth, and Discreet Hero in seventh, all of whom return for the Essex.

The field also includes Wally's Choice, winner of the Grade 3 Oklahoma Derby; Absent Friend, who invades from Fair Grounds; Saintly Look, who won an overnight handicap in his last start at Turfway Park; and Northern Scene.

River Mountain Rd might benefit from the additional sixteenth of a mile he gets in the Essex. The last time he raced over the distance he won a stakes at Prairie Meadows. River Mountain Rd has won 4 of 7 starts at Oaklawn.

John McKee, who during his current suspension for a riding infraction can ride in designated stakes, has the mount for trainer Bob Holthus. River Mountain Rd races for Harry Rosenblum.

Discreet Hero will attempt to turn the tables on River Mountain Rd. He showed speed briefly in the Jan. 23 allowance, and his trainer, Bernie Flint, regards the race as a throwout. With something closer to his triple-digit Beyer Figure efforts at Turfway Park and Mountaineer Park, it would be tough to handle Discreet Hero.

He draws to the outside of his other speed rival, Mauk Four, and should be prominent throughout under jockey Calvin Borel.

Arbitrate used stalking tactics in the allowance and, as a son of Deputy Minister and Serena's Song, is the best-bred horse in the field. Trainer Wayne Lukas has given the mount to Terry Thompson. Another who merits consideration is Crowned King, who has run some of his biggest races at Oaklawn.

* Runway Model, whose spring goal is the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, had her first work of the year Thursday. She traveled four furlongs in 49.60 seconds over a fast track, the eighth fastest work of 22 at the distance at Oaklawn. Runway Model won two Grade 2 stakes last year and is trained by Flint.