The default adjective trainer Jimmy Jerkens likes to use when discussing graded stakes winner Effinex is tough. And really, that doesn’t cover the half of it.
The 4-year-old son of Mineshaft has what are commonly referred to as quirks, some more minor - like his flip-flopping of running leads - and some more concerning - like the time he bolted to the outside fence in the Brooklyn Handicap in June.
Such flinty mannerisms can be countered by equally tenacious talent. After teasing of its full ability most of the season, it was the latter that surfaced most prominently for the dark bay colt in the Grade I, $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Friday.
Less than a month removed from his runner-up finish behind Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Tri-Bone Stables’ Effinex got some top-level glory for keeps when he held off defending race winner Hoppertunity and 88-to-1 shot Looks to Spare to earn his first career Grade I win in the 1 1/8-mile Clark Handicap.
With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith giving him some astute handling, Effinex put his stubbornness to good use when he advanced four wide with 3 furlongs to go and grinded his way to a three-quarter-length triumph for his seventh win in 20 starts.
Having watched him get beat in three prior Grade I outings this season, it was particularly satisfying for Jerkens to see his charge prove he has gone beyond just being a hard tryer.
“He’s just a good quality horse and he’s really come around since that weird effort in Saratoga (fourth in the Grade I Woodward) where he went crazy behind the gate,” Jerkens said. “This was good for him to do this, to make himself a Grade I winner. Plus, if anybody thought it was fluky that he was second last time (in the Breeders’ Cup) this should quiet them down a little bit.”
Effinex got his year off to a yin and yang type start, winning three of his first four starts, including the Grade III Excelsior at Aqueduct in April and Grade II Suburban Handicap in July.
Sandwiched between those outings, however, was his Brooklyn meltdown, the source of which Jerkens never really found a hard excuse for. What Jerkens did suspect is that Effinex is happiest when his pilots leave him be, which is exactly what Smith took to heart in the Breeders’ Cup and the Clark.
“He’s done some quirky things. He’s bolted, he’ll switch leads in the middle of the turn with you to the right which is very odd,” Smith said. “He’ll kind of throw himself off. So I try and keep my hands down and let him get comfortable and go with whatever quirky move he does.
“Instead of grabbing him and making him stay in his left down the turn ... I just go with him and it works.”
Sent off as the 5-to-2 favorite in the eight-horse Clark field, Effinex settled in an outside path in fifth while Mr. Z cut fractions of 23.43 and 47.68 with Shotgun Kowboy just behind.
When Race Day began to advance approaching the final turn, Effinex picked it up as well, taking over a short lead at the head of the lane and then grinding his way to the wire to cover the distance in 1:48.92.
“I knew he was going to stick it out, he’s relentless,” Jerkens said. “Once he had the lead in those big races, they never overtook him.”
Added Martin Garcia, jockey of Hoppertunity, “When I got next to (Effinex), he just took off. I couldn’t pass him.”
Travers winner Keen Ice closed late to get fourth.
A freshening down in Florida is likely on the agenda next for Effinex. Jerkens said that as long as he “holds together,” another big campaign could be on tap for 2016.
“He’s a little tougher than the average horse you have nowadays,” the veteran trainer deadpanned. “That’s what you need.”
Notes: Almasty led every step of the way under jockey Jon Court to earn a 4 1/4-length upset victory over Saham in the Grade III, $100,000 Commonwealth Turf. Trained by Louisville native Brad Cox, Almasty covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.41 over a course rated good.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl