01/31/2007 1:00AM

Rotary might get stakes shot in Essex


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Rotary has stepped up his game over the past several months, and his trainer, Don Von Hemel, said the horse could make his stakes debut in the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 10.

"We're looking at it," said Von Hemel, who trains Rotary for Arthur B. Hancock III and country artist Toby Keith.

Rotary picked up his third straight win last month, when he won an allowance prep for the Essex here on Jan. 25. Prior to the race, he had won a second-level allowance in October and an optional claimer in November, both at Hawthorne. The three wins all came at 1 1/16 miles, which is the distance of the Essex.

"He is a mile and a sixteenth horse, even a mile and an eighth is down his alley," said Von Hemel. "I don't want to run him any shorter than that."

Rotary beat a deep group at Oaklawn. He won by a length over Absent Friend, who won the Essex here in 2005, while it was another neck back in third to stakes winner Commander Buck. Rotary earned a Beyer Figure of 92.

"I was very pleased with his race," said Von Hemel. "Since we let him run on dirt the last three times, each race has been an improved race. We thought going into that race we were in pretty good shape, and he ran very well."

Rotary spent much of 2005 and 2006 racing on turf, but when wet weather forced one of his races to the main track in October, his current win streak was born. He is a son of Wagon Limit and the Royal Academy mare Run and Run, who produced turf stakes winner Big Hubie for Keith.

Commander Buck, who had a troubled trip in the allowance, could make his next start in the Essex, said his trainer, Tom Howard.

Jonesboro is pointing for the Essex, said his trainer, Randy Morse. The runner-up last out in the $75,000 Louisiana Breeders' Cup Handicap at Fair Grounds, he worked five furlongs in 59.80 seconds between races here last Sunday under Calvin Borel.

Casino Evil points to Fifth Season

Casino Evil, who won the Round Table last year at Arlington, was scheduled to arrive at Oaklawn from Kentucky on Friday, said his trainer, Mike Tomlinson. Casino Evil has been freshened since finishing second in an allowance at Churchill in November, and Tomlinson said the long-term goal for him this meet is the $100,000 Fifth Season on April 12.

While he was away from the races, Casino Evil exercised on an underwater treadmill and then was turned out on a farm during the afternoons.

"So he's been getting, hopefully, the best of both worlds," Tomlinson said. "He's been kept in condition, yet he's had time off, too."

National HBPA to meet in Arkansas

The winter convention of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association will be held at the Embassy Suites in Hot Springs from Feb. 7-11. There are three committee workshops planned, on topics ranging from immigration reform to simulcasting contracts.

The convention is being hosted by the Arkansas affiliate of the HBPA. The Arkansas horsemen's group will hold its general membership meeting and annual dinner-dance in Horner Hall at the Hot Springs convention center at 7 p.m. Feb. 10. Tickets are on sale now at the HBPA offices near the stable gate at Oaklawn.

The dinner-dance is expected to draw about 350 people, said Loretta Brennan, secretary-treasurer of the Arkansas HBPA.

* Samantha Hust Clark, daughter of the late jockey Elvie "Popeye" Hust, died in December in Hot Springs. She was 49.