Tri-Bone Stable’s favored Effinex, whose strong year included a runner-up finish to Triple Crown champion and Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I) winner American Pharoah in the recent $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Keeneland, survived a five-horse battle through the stretch under jockey Mike Smith to win the 141st running of the $500,000 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI), the main event among three stakes events contested on Friday at Churchill Downs.
Trained by Jimmy Jerkens, the New York-bred son of Mineshaft edged clear in the final yards to win the 1 1/8-mile race of 3-year-olds and up by three-quarters of a length over Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman’s defending Clark Handicap winner Hoppertunity. It was the first victory in the race for the owners and trainer, and the second for Smith, who piloted Mi Cielo to win the Clark Handicap in 1991.
The 5-2 favorite in the field of eight, Effinex returned $7, $3.60 and $3.20. Hoppertunity, the Bob Baffert-trained second choice under jockey Martin Garcia, paid $3.20 and $2.60. O’zbekiston Racing’s Looks to Spare, the longest shot in the Clark field at 88-1, finished a neck behind the runner-up in third under Victor Lebron and returned $10.80 to show. Donegal Racing’s Keen Ice rallied from last to finish a fast-closing fourth under Corey Lanerie, a head back of Looks to Spare. Matthew Schera’s Race Day, who led at the head of the stretch under John Velazquez and was part of the five-way battle through the final yards, finished fifth.
Effinex completed the Clark Handicap’s 1 1/8-miles in 1:48.92 over a fast track. The winning time was the seventh-fastest in in 61 runnings of the Clark at the current 1 1/8-mile distance, and was the fastest since the victorious A.P. Arrow covered nine furlongs in a winning time of 1:48.66 in the 2007 Clark.
The two visits by Effinex to the state of Kentucky during the past month have been very profitable as Jerkens’ colt followed his second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a first-place Clark Handicap payday of $300,700. The victory boosted his career bankroll to $2,112,950 and improved his racing record to 7-2-3 in 20 races. The Clark was his fourth victory in 2015 and third in stakes competition following victories in the Suburban (GII) at Belmont Park and the Excelsior (GIII) at Aqueduct, and the effort by his star justified Jerkens’ decision to return to Kentucky for the Clark.
“He ran so well last time (in the Breeders’ Cup) and it looked like he never missed a beat with his training and everything else afterwards, so that’s why we decided to come,” Jerkens said. “He ran a hard race in the Breeders’ Cup, but he shipped all the way back (to New York) on the van and acted like a fresh horse, so we decided to come back.”
The Clark Handicap is one of four Churchill Downs stakes races that were introduced in 1875 during the inaugural racing meet at the Louisville track, which was known in its early years as the Louisville Jockey Club. Like the Kentucky Derby and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI), the Clark Handicap has been run annually and without interrupted since that debut season. The other race that debuted in 1875 was the Falls City Handicap (GII), which celebrated its centennial running on Thanksgiving Day.
Mr. Z and Shotgun Kowboy shot to the early lead in the Clark, while Effinex settled in fifth and Hoppertunity was seventh in in the run through the first turn. The front-running duo set the pace down the backstretch as Race Day and Effinex drew closer and Hoppertunity was settled in sixth and Keen Ice trailed the field. Race Day and Effinex moved quickly on the outside the early leaders who started to lose steam, while longshot Looks to Spare, who had lunged at the start, moved into a contending position and Keen Ice started a rally from the back the field. Race Day held a narrow lead over Effinex at the top of the stretch as Looks to Spare moved up from the inside and Hoppertunity swung seven-wide entering the stretch. Effinex moved to the front of that battle through the stretch as Keen Ice arrived late on the scene. Effinex edged clear for the final margin over the surging Hoppertunity, while Keen Ice just missed catching Looks to Spare for the show spot.
The triumph by Effinex was only the second documented victory by a New York-bred in the Clark Handicap. Anticlimax, a New York-bred who won the race for Hal Price Headley in 1943, also was bred in the Empire State.
Following fifth-place Race Day in the order of finish were 2014 Clark Handicap runner-up Protonico, Shotgun Kowboy and Mr. Z.
The field for the Clark was reduced to eight by the scratch of Frivolous.
Fall Meet racing at Churchill Downs enters its final two days on Saturday with a 12-race “Stars of Tomorrow II” program devoted exclusively to racing among 2-year-old Thoroughbreds. Post time for the first race is 12:40 p.m. (EST).
CLARK HANDICAP QUOTES
JIMMY JERKENS, trainer of EFFINEX (winner): “He ran so well last time and it looked like he never missed a beat with his training and everything else afterwards so that’s why we decided to come. We broke a step slow and then they kind of converged on him and they went like a bat out of hell so he just sat there and went in behind them.
“He’s just a good quality horse. He’s really come around since that weird effort at Saratoga where he went crazy from behind the gate. I still don’t know what that was about, but he’s been all business since then. He ran a hard race in the Breeders’ Cup, but he shipped all the way back on the van and acted like a fresh horse so we decided to come back. We didn’t really make a final decision until the week before. We were sure we could get Mike [Smith] to do it and we were sure that he wanted to come. We didn’t know what he had elsewhere but he definitely wanted to come so that helped us a little bit.
“Maybe we’ll send him to Florida, I don’t know yet. He’s such a tough horse, as long as there’s someone around taking good care of him that’s all he cares about.”
MIKE SMITH, jockey of EFFINEX (winner): “He’s done some quirky things. He’s bolted before, he’ll switch leads in the middle of the turn with you to the right, which is very odd for a horse to do that. He’ll kind of throw himself off and I just took a long hold and keep my hands down and just let him get comfortable with himself. Every move he does, I just go with and it seems to work out well. Instead of grabbing him and trying to make him stay in his left down the turn and stay in his right down the lane, I just go with him and it works. So far, so good. I’m very blessed, just to get the opportunities like this. I always love coming in and getting to ride these good horses and when you point these good horses in the right direction and stay out of their way, you get results like this.”
MARTIN GARCIA, jockey of HOPPERTUNITY (second): “The other two horses (Mr. Z and Shotgun Kowboy) showed the speed and I tried to follow them. The speed was fine here all day long and I didn’t want to be too far back. My horse ran a big race but I just couldn’t pass the other one (Effinex). The other one is a really, really nice horse. When I got next to him, he just took off. I couldn’t pass him. But my horse ran a nice race. I got beat by a good horse.”
VICTOR LEBRON, jockey of LOOKS TO SPARE (third): “We had a bad break. The horse got a little erratic as soon as they shut the last door (in the starting gate). He just hopped out in the air. At that moment I had to give away three or four lengths and had to go to Plan B, which was sit and wait and make the one run at the end. I mean, he’s a nice horse. Once I pulled the trigger on him to go, he was there and responded quick.”
DALE ROMANS, trainer of KEEN ICE (fourth): “I think that he proved he can run with anybody and that a mile-and-a-quarter is his game. I really think he’s going to be the best handicap horse by the end of next year. It’ll be up to (Donegal Racing manager partner) Jerry (Crawford) but I’d love to win a $10 million race with him (Dubai World Cup).”
COREY LANERIE, jockey of KEEN ICE (fourth): “He ran big. I got farther back than I wanted to but I had to just kind of let him find his stride without asking him. I wanted him to finish for me. I had a perfect trip. We came right up the middle and at one point I thought I was going to get nothing. Then he kicked it in and showed his heart and found some more. It was a little late but another couple of jumps and I think he wins.”
JOHN VELAZQUEZ, jockey of RACE DAY (fifth): “I had a perfect trip in the right position. We were drafting right behind the two leaders down the backstretch and got to the half-mile pole with the winner (Effinex) next to me. The winner kept running and mine didn’t.”