Horses

Quirky Effinex seeks another top-level score in Churchill’s Stephen Foster

Effinex (8) stormed to victory in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last November.
Effinex (8) stormed to victory in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last November. Reed Palmer Photography

Effinex is a horse who likes life on his own terms.

Even a routine, post-work bath is opportunity for the Grade I-winning son of Mineshaft to exert his will as he repeatedly grabs at his handler’s lead shank and refuses to keep still for more than a few seconds.

On the track and in the barn, Effinex’s connections have found that fighting with the 5-year-old dark bay benefits no one. Leave him to his own devices and, chances are, he’ll be more amenable to delivering a performance that mitigates his quirks.

“He’s the kind of horse where you have to leave him alone,” trainer Jimmy Jerkens said at his Belmont Park base last week.

As long as Effinex keeps putting up results as he has over the last eight months, no one is going to argue with him. This Saturday, the Tri-Bone Stables’ color bearer returns to the site of his most important victory. He’s the even-money morning line favorite over the likes of fellow Grade I winner Majestic Harbor and graded stakes winner Eagle in the Grade I, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Effinex drew post No. 3 in a field of seven entered Wednesday for the 1  1/8 -mile Stephen Foster, the headline event of Churchill’s “Downs After Dark” card that also features champion Untapable in the Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap, the Grade II Wise Dan Stakes (formerly the Firecracker), the Grade III Matt Winn and Grade III Regret Stakes.

Barely a month after stamping his class with a runner-up finish to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Effinex got over the top-level hump when he captured the Grade I Clark Handicap by three-quarters of a length beneath the Twin Spires last November.

That Effinex’s eight-race campaign last year ended on a high note was a tribute to Jerkens’ ability to get to the root of his charges’ mental well-being. One race after earning his first graded stakes victory in the Grade III Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct in April 2015, Effinex caused a scene when he bolted to the outside fence in the Grade II Brooklyn Stakes and ended up being eased at Belmont Park last June 6.

He rebounded with a head victory over multiple Grade I winner Tonalist in the Grade II Suburban Handicap last July 4 but drifted out again during a third-place finish in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup in October. In addition to tinkering with his runner’s equipment along the way, Jerkens also determined that less was more where Effinex was concerned.

“You can’t get into his mouth too much or he gets mad and starts doing stupid things like the day he bolted over here last year in the Brooklyn,” Jerkens said. “You’ve got to kind of let him have his way. His last few starts, he’s been laying real close to the pace without much effort. That’s a great sign. As long as you have someone on him who can judge (the pace) properly, it’s a plus.”

With regular rider Mike Smith committed to ride champion Songbird in Saturday’s Grade II Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita Park, fellow Hall of Famer Gary Stevens is charged with getting along with Effinex as he readies for his third start of 2016.

You can’t get into his mouth too much or he gets mad and starts doing stupid things like the day he bolted over here last year in the Brooklyn. You’ve got to kind of let him have his way.

Jimmy Jerkens, trainer of Effinex

The chart from his season debut in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap on March 12 shows a horse that was a well-beaten third as the overwhelming favorite. A significant part of the story might have actually been written all over Effinex’s body as he broke out in hives before the race, but he was cleared to start by veterinarians.

Jerkens is still at a loss as to what caused the hives that day and in the aftermath, but what he saw in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap on April 16 was a great salve. Breaking from the outside, Effinex rated second in an outside path just off Santa Anita Handicap winner Melatonin and then put away that rival in midstretch en route to a 1-length victory.

“Knock on wood, he’s been good for about a month now,” Jerkens said of the hives. “We still don’t know what caused it. It started in Palm Meadows in Florida and then we had a terrible time for about six weeks after that. When he came back from California, he got it real bad again. And then I don’t know, we never could really figure it out.”

Bred by Dr. Russell Cohen — who manages his mother’s Tri-Bone Stables — Effinex has won eight of 22 starts with $2,682,950 in earnings.

If it has taken Effinex time to mature into his best form, 8-year-old Majestic Harbor is remarkably still holding his ability as he readies for the 42nd start of his career. The venerable son of Rockport Harbor was fourth in last year’s Stephen Foster and most recently showed up some younger boys when he defeated Eagle by 2½ lengths in the Grade II Alysheba Stakes at Churchill on May 6.

“I think he’s gotten even better than he’s ever been,” jockey Corey Lanerie said of Majestic Harbor, who will break from post No. 4 Saturday. “He sure seems that way. Right now, he’s a happy, happy horse.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

Saturday

Stephen Foster Handicap

What: Grade I race for 3-year-olds and up

Where: Churchill Downs

Post time: 9:30 p.m.

TV: TVG

Purse: $500,000

Distance: 1  1/8 miles

Field: 1-International Star, 2-Bradester, 3-Effinex, 4-Majestic Harbor, 5-El Kabeir, 6-Are You Kidding Me, 7-Eagle.

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