Competitive field of seven assembled for Stephen Foster Handicap

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Jen Caldwell

June 15th, 2016

Seven runners, four of whom are exiting stakes wins, have been entered to go 1 1/8 miles Saturday night in the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs.

The race is the feature event on Churchill’s Downs After Dark program that also includes four other graded contests.

Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) runner-up Effinex is one of those entering the Stephen Foster off a stakes win. Following his 33-1 run behind Triple Crown champion American Pharoah last fall at Keeneland, the Jimmy Jerkens trainee took a well-deserved vacation before reappearing for the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) on March 12.

Effinex wound up third that day but quickly rebounded to take the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) last out on April 16. The five-year-old son of Mineshaft earned a 106 BRIS Speed rating for the score, matching the number he earned for his Classic second.

“He’s coming in real good,” Jerkens asserted. “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 arrived from New York on Sunday and will get a new rider in Gary Stevens as regular jockey Mike Smith will be in California for champion Songbird’s return in the Summertime Oaks (G2).

“It was Mike’s idea so I figured that you can’t argue with that,” Jerkens shrugged. “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.”

Majestic Harbor will be looking to derail Effinex in the Stephen Foster after taking the Alysheba Stakes (G3) on Kentucky Oaks Day by 2 1/2 lengths. The eight-year-old bay was sent off at 13-1 that day after finishing off-the-board in the New Orleans Handicap (G2) one race prior but ran back to his head victory in the Mineshaft Handicap (G3) on February 20.

The Rockport Harbor horse has plenty of experience at Churchill, even running fourth in last year’s Stephen Foster for trainer Paul McGee. Corey Lanerie has been in the saddle for 11 of Majestic Harbor’s last 12 races and has the call on Saturday.

“I think he’s gotten even better than he’s ever been,” Lanerie stated. “He sure seems that way. Right now, he’s a happy, happy horse.”

Eagle found himself in second behind Majestic Harbor in the Alysheba after rallying from the back of the field in the lane. It wasn’t the first time the Neil Howard-trained four-year-old played second fiddle to that rival, though, as he just missed by a head in the Mineshaft at Fair Grounds in February.

Eagle entered the Alysheba off a nice win in the Ben Ali Stakes (G3) at Keeneland and did manage to finish in front of Majestic Harbor when fourth, placed third via disqualification, in the New Orleans ‘Cap.

“(Eagle is) 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,” Howard explained. “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.”

Brian Hernandez Jr. has been aboard for all but one of Eagle’s 14 career starts and will be holding the reins in this spot as well.

Are You Kidding Me has shipped in from Woodbine for the Stephen Foster and will get a jockey switch to Julien Leparoux on Saturday.

The Roger Attfield-conditioned six-year-old sandwiched an eighth-place run in the grassy Maker’s 46 Mile (G1) at Keeneland between wins in the Autumn Stakes (Can-G2) and Eclipse Stakes (Can-G2) over Woodbine’s synthetic Tapeta.

In fact, Are You Kidding Me has only ever raced on dirt once in his 26 career starts. That resulted in a well-beaten eighth in the 2013 Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park.

Bradester is the final runner entering the Stephen Foster off a stakes win, having wired the Majestic Light Stakes at Monmouth Park on May 21 by 2 1/4 lengths. The Eddie Kenneally charge earned a 102 BRIS Speed rating for that effort, the same number he earned when taking the Ack Ack Handicap (G3) under the Twin Spires in 2014. Joe Bravo has the call.

Also of note in the Stephen Foster is International Star, who kicked off his four-year-old campaign with a score in the Louisiana Stakes before failing to find the winner’s circle in his three graded tries since. After running fourth in the Mineshaft, the Mike Maker pupil was elevated to second in the New Orleans ‘Cap via disqualification of another runner.

International Star will go in the Stephen Foster under Florent Geroux off a sixth-place effort in the April 23 Charles Town Classic (G2).

El Kabeir completes the Stephen Foster field. The Scat Daddy colt was entered in last Saturday’s Met Mile (G1) on the Belmont Stakes undercard but was scratched in favor of this spot.

“The Met Mile came up real tough with a real big field and we drew the rail,” trainer John Terranova explained. “We were kind of weighing our ideas of the two races. He’s won at Churchill before and has been training well.”

El Kabeir captured the 2014 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) and would go on to take the Jerome Stakes (G3) and Gotham Stakes (G3) while placing in both the Wood Memorial (G1) and Withers Stakes (G3) as a sophomore at Aqueduct. He’s yet to regain that form, though the gray colt did take the City of Laurel Stakes last November. Ricardo Santana Jr. has the call.

Effinex photo courtesy of Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography
Majestic Harbor photo courtesy of Churchill Downs/Coady Photography
Bradester photo courtesy of Taylor Ejdys/Equi-Photo