Wearing a set of blinkers belonging to his multiple graded stakes-winning stablemate, Wicked Strong, Effinex outdueled So Lonesome in a fierce battle to the wire for an upset Saturday's $300,000 Empire Classic Handicap, the centerpiece of Empire Showcase Day at Belmont Park.
While four of the eight stakes races devoted exclusively to New York-breds went to favorites, Effinex's victory as the longest shot in the field of nine was the surprise of the afternoon on track.
Effinex, whose previous best finish in a stakes race was second in the Albany on August 24, was away alertly and then settled in midpack as So Lonesome led through an opening quarter-mile in 23.66 seconds, with the half going in 47.09 and three-quarters in 1:11.31. Moved into contention on the turn by jockey Angel Arroyo, Effinex angled out at the top of the stretch to launch his bid, drawing even with So Lonesome in the final yards and edging ahead to win by a neck.
"I followed [So Lonesome] all the way," said Arroyo, who won the Mohawk aboard Kharafa earlier on the card. "I stayed on the rail and waited for the stretch, and at the eighth pole I took him outside. My horse, he responded. [The blinkers] made a big difference today. He liked the blinkers; that's why he ran better. He was better at the finish. He ran great."
The Mineshaft colt completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.51 as he earned his third career victory and first for Jimmy Jerkens, who took over Effinex's training this summer. Following the Albany, Effinex finished third, beaten 10 lengths, in an optional claimer on September 28, after which Jerkens decided to make the equipment change.
"He was closer to the pace, that's for sure," said Jerkens. "Since I've gotten him, he's gotten stronger. He ran very well in Saratoga. We didn't have a lot of time to get him ready. We threw a lot of work at him and he handled it and ran very well. His last race was a little bit of a disappointment. I think it had more to do with the track, when you couldn't gain on anyone and horses got discouraged coming from behind. But he's done everything right since then and we figured we'd take a shot. We figured the extra eighth of a mile wouldn't hurt, either."
Sent off at 17-1, Effinex returned $37.20 for a $2 win bet and more than doubled his lifetime earnings to $328,350 for Tri-Bone Stables.
Runner-up So Lonesome was 5 ¾ lengths ahead of Beautyinthepulpit. Saratoga Snacks, who was bidding to repeat last year's Classic victory, checked in fourth, followed by Eye Luv Lulu, Awesome Vision, favored Sioux, Sinistra, and Empire Dreams.
Princess Violet had no trouble in her return to state-bred company, drawing away to an emphatic 5 ½-length victory in the inaugural $250,000 Empire Distaff for fillies and mares, just her second lifetime start beyond 6 ½ furlongs.
Owned by Barry Schwartz and trained by Mike Hushion, the 3-year-old Officer filly rated behind the early leaders before sweeping to the lead on the far outside approaching the stretch and pulling clear under a hand ride from jockey Jose Ortiz, who picked up his third consecutive victory on the card.
Favored at 6-5 in the field of nine, Princess Violet ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.81 on a fast main track, returning $4.70 for a $2 win bet. Flipcup rallied late to be second, followed by Carameaway, Lady Gracenote, Storied Lady, Unbelievable Dream, Dreaming of Cara, Sunny Desert and Pennymine.
Princess Violet had made three straight starts in open company, including a runner-up finish behind Untapable in the Grade 1, 1 1/16-mile Mother Goose on June 28. Most recently, she defeated older horses in a 6 ½-furlong allowance on October 5.
Lady Sheila Stable's La Verdad found her way back to the winner's circle after cruising to a wire-to-wire, 1 1/4-length win over Willet in the $150,000 Iroquois for fillies and mares 3 and older going 6 1/2 furlongs.
The 3-5 favorite, returning to state-bred competition after a close loss in the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont on September 20, La Verdad took the lead from the outset under Jose Ortiz and comfortably held off runner-up Willet, with Risky Rachel third.
The winning time for the 4-year-old daughter of Yes It's True, was 1:17.13. La Verdad returned $3.40 for her sixth win in 10 starts this year, and 10th win in 16 career starts.
"She obviously likes Belmont, and it's nice to get her back in the winner's circle," said La Verdad'a trainer Linda Rice. "The plan was to go to the lead, hopefully not in :43 [seconds]; the :45 helped. I'm not sure what's next.''
Kharafa took the lead from favored King Kreesa after six furlongs and held off a late bid from Lubash to win the 36th running of the $200,000 Mohawk for 3-year-olds and up. It was the sixth victory in 13 lifetime starts at Belmont Park for the 5-year-old Kharafa, who was 10th of 11 behind King Kreesa in last year's race.
Trained by Tim Hills for Paul Braverman and Timothy Pinch, Kharafa ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.01 on the inner turf, returning $15.40 for a $2 win bet. He was followed past the wire by Lubash, King Kreesa, Notacatbutallama, Ocala Jim, Captain Gaughen and Front.
Winner of the Kingston at Belmont in May, Kharafa improved his lifetime record to 25-8-7-4, and the $120,000 winner's share pushed his career bankroll to $653,497.
Back on just two weeks' rest following her sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 First Lady at Keeneland, Discreet Marq was an easy three-length winner in her return to state-bred company, taking the 34th renewal of the $200,000 Ticonderoga
Sitting comfortably off pacesetter One Time Only, the 4-year-old Discreet Cat filly took command turning for home and never looked back, notching her seventh career victory and first in six starts this year.
With regular rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. up, Discreet Marq ran 1 1/16 miles over the Widener turf in 1:44.36, paying $3.60 as the 4-5 favorite in a field of 12. It was the first victory since the Pebbles Stakes at Belmont Park last October for Discreet Marq, who had made seven of her previous nine starts in Grade 1 stakes, winning the 2013 Del Mar Oaks.
Discreet Marq earned $120,000 to push her over the $1 million mark in lifetime purses with $1,067,900. Old Harbor finished second, followed by Selenite, defending Ticonderoga champion Effie Trinket, Chrysolite, Caribean Beat, Strike Accord, Invading Humor, Run to Mama, Stock Fund, One Time Only and Mah Jong Maddnes.
In the first of two races for juveniles, Eric Fein's Ostrolenka took charge in the stretch and pulled away for a 2 1/2-length victory over Good Luck Gus to win the $250,000 Sleepy Hollow at one mile on the dirt. Market Conduct was third.
The bay 2-year-old son of Musket Man was sent off as the 3-5 favorite in the field of seven and returned $3.30 for a $2 win bet. Ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, Ostrolenka's winning time was 1:37.39.
"Very professional, once again,'' said Byron Hughes, assistant to winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "He was good in the paddock, good on the track. He kind of broke loose down the stretch and won impressively again.''
In the Sleepy Hollow's sister race, Marc Keller's Quezon ($10.20) showed trainer Bobby Ribaudo she indeed could go a mile by taking the lead in the stretch and winning the $250,000 Maid of the Mist by six lengths over favorite Temper Mint Patty.
The 2-year-old chestnut daughter of Tiz Wonderful covered the mile under Manuel Franco in 1:38.38.
"I had my doubts about doing this because she had come off one race going three-quarters,'' said Ribaudo. "Common sense says you shouldn't be doing this, but how many times can you run for a quarter of a million dollars with a New York-bred 2-year-old filly? She was doing great, so we went.''
Moonlight Song closed out the afternoon's stakes with a front-running victory in the $150,000 Hudson Handicap for sprinters. Sent right to the front by jockey Joel Rosario, Moonlight Song zipped through an opening half-mile in 45.18 seconds and had plenty left to turn back the late challenge from Big Business and win by 1 ½ lengths.
Moonlight Song completed the 6 ½ furlongs in 1:15.58 as he extended his career record to 7-2-1 from 16 starts. Overall, he has earned $414,294 for owner Albert Fried.
"He's the best horse I have in the barn," said winning trainer Charlton Baker of the 7-year-old gelded son of Unbridled's Song, who returned $12.60 for a $2 win bet. "He was second in this race last year to Palace; he came back and beat Palace in January. Palace is going to the Breeders' Cup, so you know he's been keeping good company."
West Hills Giant was third, followed by Captain Serious, favored Noble Cornerstone, Weekend Hideaway, Crafty Dreamer, John's Island, Chapman, Laila's Jazz and Sandy'z Slew.
Source: NYRA Communications