03/15/2004 1:00AM

Sonic West rallies to win Essex

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Sonic West, making his first start in blinkers, rallied past dueling leaders Pie N Burger and Crafty Shaw in the stretch for a two and three quarter length win in the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Sunday.

Crafty Shaw finished second, a head in front of 3-5 favorite and third place finisher Pie N Burger.

Sonic West($16.80) settled in third early, as Pie N Burger set fractions of 23.91 seconds for the opening quarter and 47.46 seconds for the half-mile mark while under pressure from Crafty Shaw. Sonic West advanced on the final turn, drew even with the leaders at the quarter pole, then drove clear. He covered the mile and a sixteenth over a fast track in 1:43.56.

"When I asked him for his best, he gave me a strong finish," said Willie Martinez, who rode the winner for trainer Thomas Van Berg.

Sonic West earned $60,000 for the win, which was his sixth from 13 starts. He has now earned $281,640 for owners Stone Spire LLC.

The Essex was a prep for the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, and Sonic West will be considered for that race, said Van Berg, who is the son of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg.