ELMONT, N.Y. - After chasing Horse of the Year front-runner California Chrome from southern California to Dubai and back again this season, Mike Pegram's hard-knocking Hoppertunity makes his New York debut and will vie for favoritism with the equally durable Effinex and Woodward runner-up Mubtaahij in the 98th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup on Super Saturday at Belmont Park.
The 1 ¼-mile Gold Cup, a Breeders' Cup Challenge race offering an all-fees-paid berth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, will be Race 10 and highlights an 11-race program featuring six supporting stakes, including three more Grade 1 events that are "Win And You're In" races for their respective divisions - the Champagne, Frizette and Flower Bowl - as well as the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap, the Grade 3 Hill Prince and the inaugural running of the $150,000 Belmont Turf Sprint Invitational. First race post time is 12:15 p.m.
Hoppertunity posted his lone Grade 1 victory in the 2014 Clark Handicap, but boasts in-the-money finishes in six other Grade 1's, notably a close second to Effinex in the 2015 Clark and a third in this year's Dubai World Cup behind California Chrome and Mubtaahij. Two post-Dubai outings resulted in fourth-place finishes in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
"He needs the mile and a quarter," said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who sends out his first starter in a Grade 1 at Belmont since American Pharoah won the 2015 Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. "He's doing well and he's overdue for a big one."
Hoppertunity ships in picking up Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez and will break from post 3 in a field of six.
Since winning the 2014 Empire Classic, the Jimmy Jerkens-trained Effinex has run three times at Belmont, finishing third in last year's Gold Cup, and becoming the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the Grade 2 Suburban since Devil His Due accomplished the feat for Jerkens' late father, Hall Of Famer Allen Jerkens, in 1993-94.
Effinex was a wide fourth in the Grade 1 Whitney when last seen two months ago at Saratoga Race Course, after which Jerkens said, "if it was up to me, I'd like to wait for the Gold Cup, I really would. I loved how he made a second effort right at the very end; he got beat an inch for third, but it just shows how classy he is." A victory in the Gold Cup would vault Effinex past Funny Cide as top money-winning New York-bred of all time for Tri-Bone Stables.
"He's sitting on ready," said Jerkens after the son of 2003 Gold Cup winner and Horse of the Year Mineshaft blew out three furlongs in 36.56 seconds Wednesday morning. "We would rather have a target for him, but won't complain [if he is on the lead]."
Effinex breaks from post 6, with Hall of Famer Mike Smith in from California to ride once again.
In two prior starts locally, Mubtaahij was fourth to American Pharoah in the Belmont and third to Effinex in this year's Suburban. The 2015 UAE Derby winner exits the fastest performance of his career, when beaten a head by Breeders' Cup Classic-bound Shaman Ghost in the Grade 1 Woodward.
"I thought he ran great," said McLaughlin. "He ran  feet further than the winner. He's training great and a mile and a quarter is a great distance for him. He's third-time Lasix and third-time Irad [Ortiz, Jr.] this year, and could not be doing better."
Watershed closed strongly to win a second-level allowance route at the Spa before running third in the Grade 3 Philip Iselin at Monmouth Park.
"He's training great, last race a horse broke down in front of him and hurt his chances, and Monmouth is a speed-favoring track," said McLaughlin. "The mile and a quarter we feel he will love."
Mubtaahij drew post 2, while Watershed leaves from post 5 with Joel Rosario back aboard.
With combined earnings of nearly $10 million, the trio of Hoppertunity, Effinex and Mubtaahij appear evenly matched on paper, but not to be ignored is Sumaya U.S. Stable's Protonico, who was a close second to Hoppertunity in the 2014 Clark, and ran a mile in a sharp 1:34 to win his seasonal debut opening day. The four-time graded stakes winner has a versatile running style and looms a potential spoiler after being re-routed from the Kelso earlier this week by Todd Pletcher.
"He's doing well and hopefully the one-mile prep will have him fit enough for the stretch to 1 ¼ miles," said Pletcher. "He's a horse that has won on the lead and from last."
Protonico breaks from the rail with three-time Eclipse Award winner Javier Castellano.
Rounding out the field is Loooch Racing Stables' War Story, who wheels back two weeks after running second in the $150,000 Pennsylvania Derby Champion "Frosted" Stakes at Parx Racing. The Mario Serey-trained gelding breaks from post 4 with Antonio Gallardo up.