Tri-bone Stables’ Effinex, the $2,682,950-earner who won last fall’s Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I), returns to Churchill Downs as the red-hot, even-money morning line favorite and 122-pound high weight for Saturday night’s 35th running of the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) – the centerpiece of an action-packed, prime-time program billed as “Downs After Dark – The White Party presented by Stella Artois and El Jimador.”
The 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster Handicap is the richest of five graded stakes races on Saturday’s special 11-race night racing card that begins at 6 p.m. (all times Eastern). Total purses on the evening are $1.373 million, which makes it the most lucrative racing day for horsemen at Churchill Downs outside of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks programs.
Other stakes events scheduled are the $200,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap (GII) for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles featuring champion Untapable; the $200,000 Wise Dan (GII) – formerly the Firecracker – for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles on turf headlined by 2015 Eclipse Award-finalist The Pizza Man; the $100,000 Matt Winn (GIII) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles showcasing Kentucky Derby-third Gun Runner; and the $100,000 Regret (GIII) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/8 miles on turf.
The Stephen Foster Handicap has been carded as Race 8 at 9:39 p.m.
A field of seven older horses was entered Wednesday for Saturday’s Foster, which is an appealing Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” stakes event that will guarantee the winner a berth in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5 at Santa Anita.
Effinex, the New York-based and bred 5-year-old who is rated 16th on the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, will attempt to secure a spot in the Breeders’ Cup starting gate for a second year in a row. Last November, the Jimmy Jerkens trainee came closest to eventual Horse of the Year and Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah in the Classic at Keeneland, finishing 6 ½ lengths back of the champion at odds of 33-1.
Effinex affirmed his form four weeks later in the Clark Handicap when he capped a strong season by surviving a five-horse battle through the stretch and beating defending champ Hoppertunity by three-quarters of a length. He ran 1 1/8 miles that day in 1:48.92, which was the seventh-fastest in 61 runnings of the Clark at the 1 1/8-mile distance and fastest since A.P. Arrow covered nine furlongs in 1:48.66 in the 2007 Clark.
Effinex enhanced his reputation as one of the nation’s top older horses April 16 when he beat Santa Anita Handicap (GI) champ Melatonin by one length in the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (GII), one month after finishing third to that rival on his home turf out west.
“He’s coming in real good,” Jerkens said of Effinex, who boasts a record of 22-8-2-4—$2,682,950. “Usually when he comes out of a big race like the one at Oaklawn he loses a few pounds but it looks like he came out of that race better than he usually does. He can be a weird horse to gauge. He’s an old-time horse who just does his thing. There were times that I didn’t think he was at his best and he ran really well. I never take anything lightly, especially these days when horses can be so in and out. I always go at it like it’s the Breeders’ Cup. I don’t take his training lightly because of that. To go at it like that, you would just be kidding yourself with a horse of this quality.”
Effinex, who arrived from New York on Sunday, landed post 3 for the Foster and will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens for the first time. In a one-race agreement, Stevens will take the reins from regular pilot Mike Smith, who was already booked to ride champion Songbird in Saturday’s $200,000 Summertime Oaks (GII) at Santa Anita.
“It was Mike’s idea so I figured that you can’t argue with that,” Jerkens said. “I’m sure he’ll tell Gary about his quirks. They’ve been riding against each other for years and they kind of cover each other that way.”
Effinex will attempt to join No Marker (1989-90), Saint Liam (2004-05) and Blame (2009-10) as horses who won the Clark in the fall and returned to Churchill Downs to win next spring’s Stephen Foster.
The Stephen Foster Handicap field from the rail out (with jockeys, assigned weights and morning line odds): International Star (Florent Geroux, 116 pounds, 6-1), Bradester (Joe Bravo, 116, 5-1); Effinex (Stevens, 122, 1-1); Majestic Harbor (Corey Lanerie, 118, 5-1); El Kabeir (Ricardo Santana Jr., 115, 12-1); Are You Kidding Me (Julien Leparoux, 118, 10-1); and Eagle (Brian Hernandez Jr., 117, 6-1).
Favorites have a record of 34-7-10-4 (20.6%) in the Stephen Foster.
Gallant Stables’ four-time graded stakes winner Majestic Harbor, now age 8 under the care of trainer Paul McGee, and William S. Farish’s Grade III-winner Eagle, conditioned by veteran Neil Howard, ran 1-2 in the $400,000 Alysheba (Grade II) on Kentucky Oaks Day.
Majestic Harbor, who will attempt to surpass 7-year-old Honor Medal (1988) as the oldest Stephen Foster winner, has won 10 races and $1,246,814 in 41 starts over the past six years.
“I think he’s gotten even better than he’s ever been,” Lanerie said. “He sure seems that way. Right now, he’s a happy, happy horse.”
Eagle (14-6-4-2—$473,006), a 4-year-old Candy Ride (ARG) colt by Sea Gull, hopes to avenge a tough beat of his dam’s sire Mineshaft, who lost to Perfect Drift by a head for Farish and Howard in the 2003 Stephen Foster – his only loss during his Horse of the Year campaign.
“Mineshaft’s demeanor was second to none,” Howard said. “Eagle is a little bit of a different type. He’s more of a college ball player thinking that he’s all that, but he’s matured a lot. He’s got a great personality but he’s a little bit high on himself. Sometimes you have to kind of train him accordingly to keep him settled – not in a nervous way, just in a playful, good-feeling way – but he’s done well on that.”
Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s International Star (14-6-3-0—$1,175,029) and Zayat Stables LLC’s El Kabeir (14-5-2-2—$853,237) return to Churchill Downs for the Foster – one year after scratching from the 2015 Kentucky Derby because of injuries.
International Star, trained by Mike Maker, won last year’s Louisiana Derby (GII) to sweep Fair Grounds’ series of 3-year-old races. El Kabeir won the 2014 Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) at age 2 and looks to regain his best form for trainer John Terranova II, who scratched the 4-year-old from last Saturday’s $1.5 million Metropolitan Handicap (GI) at Belmont Park in favor of this spot.
“The Met Mile came up real tough with a real big field and we drew the rail,” Terranova said. “We were kind of weighing our ideas of the two races. He’s won at Churchill before and has been training well.”
Joseph Sutton’s 6-year-old Bradester, a three-time stakes winner at Monmouth Park for trainer Eddie Kenneally, is expected to contest the early lead under Bravo, who guided him to a 2 ½-length, front-running victory in the $77,500 Majestic Light at the New Jersey track on May 21. Overall, the Kentucky-bred son of Lion Heart has a record of 22-8-6-2—$752,732.
Canadian-invader Are You Kidding Me from the Hall of Fame barn of trainer Roger Attfield will attempt to duplicate the success his 6-year-old has had on turf and synthetic surfaces. The Kentucky bred son of Run Away and Hide has won five graded stakes races, including a two-length score in the $160,602 Eclipse (GII) over 1 1/16 miles on Woodbine’s Tapeta track on May 28. Overall, Are You Kidding Me has a record of 26-7-3-6—$755,190.
The Stephen Foster Handicap, which was elevated to Grade I status in 2002, has had a strong influence on the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Horse of the Year honors. Three horses used victories in the Stephen Foster as part of their résumés in Horse of the Year campaigns: Black Tie Affair (1991), Saint Liam (2005) and Curlin (2008). In addition, two runner-ups were crowned Horse of the Year: Mineshaft (2003) and Wise Dan (2012). Also, Awesome Again (1998) and Blame (2010) completed same-year Foster-Classic doubles. Fort Larned won the Classic in 2012, and won the Foster the following year prior to a fourth-place run in his bid for a second Classic win.
Champion Victory Gallop owns the stakes and track record for 1 1/8 miles of 1:47.28, which was established in 1999.
Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN) will air live coverage of the Fleur de Lis Handicap, Wise Dan and Stephen Foster Handicap from 8-10 p.m. ET. Mike Penna, Jude Feld, Ellis Star and Jennie Rees will anchor the broadcast that will air on Sirius 93, online at www.horseracingradio.net and 93.9 The Ville in Louisville.
The theme for Saturday night’s “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and El Jimador” is the sixth annual “White Party” in which guests are encouraged to wear their best summer whites.
Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill will be on hand to accept the engraved Kentucky Derby 142 trophies for Team Nyquist, which includes owners Paul and Zillah Reddam and jockey Mario Gutierrez. The ceremony in the G.H. MUMM Winner’s Circle, which includes an unveiling of the official event logo for the 2017 Kentucky Derby, will follow Race 5 just after 8 p.m.
Fans in attendance will be able to take pictures with Nyquist’s engraved Kentucky Derby 142 trophies as they’ll be on display on the north side of the paddock in the Plaza area from 5-7 p.m.
General admission to Churchill Downs is $10 on Saturday night. Box seats are $25 and reserved dining packages are $70. They can be purchased online at www.ChurchillDowns.com/Tickets.