ELMONT, N.Y - Following a disappointing sixth-place finish last out in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 18 at Churchill Downs, Tri-Bone Stables Effinex will look to rebound and defend his title in the Grade 2, $500,000 Surburban Handicap for 4-year-olds and up at 1 ¼ miles on Stars & Stripes Saturday at Belmont Park.
A 5-year-old son of Mineshaft, Effinex used his victory in last year's Suburban to launch a fall campaign that included a second-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland and a victory in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last November. In three starts this year, he was third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and followed with an impressive win in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap on April 16 before the Stephen Foster.
Trainer Jimmy Jerkens said he was still puzzled by Effinex's subpar effort last time out but was looking forward to having him return and run at Belmont, where he has two wins from eight starts with three third-place finishes.
"I don't know what happened last time [Effinex]. He ran kind of wide, maybe he didn't like that but we'll give it another go," said Jerkens. "In some of his previous races where he's not run his best, I feel he might have been over trained so we're careful not to do that this time. We blew him out the day before the race in Kentucky. He wasn't supposed to go nearly that fast so we'll take it a little easier this time to see if he has more left in the tank. The fact that he's run very well at the distance in the past is encouraging. If anybody should be able to handle it, it should be him."
Set to be reunited with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Effinex will depart from post position 5.
Jerkens will also saddle Stronach Stables' Shaman Ghost. A multiple graded stakes winner in his own right, the 4-year-old son of Ghostzapper most recently captured the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap going 1 ½ miles.
"Cutting back to a mile and quarter from a mile and a half you don't see that too often," added Jerkens. "He won the Queens Plate at a mile and quarter so he should love the distance as well. His effort in the Brooklyn didn't really surprise me. I thought he was training great heading into the race and had a really good prep going into it as well. Everything fell into place and he was lucky he got a great trip." With Joel Rosario in the irons, Shaman Ghost will leave from post 3.
Set to make his first start at Belmont since a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes last year is Mubtaahij for owner Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum and new trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Transferring to the McLaughlin with the intent of a stateside campaign, the 4-year-old son of Dubawi finished second to California Chrome in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup on March 26 at Meydan Racecourse.
Consistently working over the Belmont main track since arriving back in New York, the colt has impressed McLaughlin, who revealed he would be making his first career start with Lasix in the Suburban.
"He came to us in terrific condition and trained well since then," said McLaughlin. "Watching his races he's probably at best when he's in the middle of the pack, and with the mile and quarter distance, I'd prefer to be on the inside. He's doing real well. He will have a change in equipment running for the first time with Lasix in his life and we've had some success with that angle so we'll see how it goes."
Drawing post 2, Mubtaahij will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Entering for trainer Mark Casse and owner John Oxley is Noble Bird. A multiple graded stakes winner, he looks to bounce back off a sixth-place running in his Big Sandy debut in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Mile Handicap on June 11. Prior to that race, the 5-year-old son of Birdstone impressively won the Grade 3 Pimlico Special Handicap by 11 ¼ lengths.
"He's been really solid since coming out of the Met Mile," said Norm Casse, assistant to his father Mark. "Every time we run him we learn a little more about him but we like that he got some experience over the track last time out and we think the returning back and going a mile and a quarter should benefit him."
Drawing the rail, Noble Bird will depart with regular rider Julian Leparoux aboard.
Rounding out the field are Eagle, for owner Bill Farish and trainer Neil Howard, who most recently finished second in the Stephen Foster; Samraat for owner My Meadowview Farm and trainer Rick Violette, and Zayat Stables El Kabier for trainer John Terranova.
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