Maribel Ruelas’ Potomac River, the longest shot in the field of 10 three-year-olds and up, made a bold five-wide move on the far turn and rolled to a two-length victory over Set the Sail in the 36th running of the $116,300 River City Handicap (Grade III) on Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs.
Trained by Sergio Baez and ridden by Juan P. Vargas, Potomac River had one horse beat after a half-mile as Skyring and Ol Army set fractions of :24.02, :48.46 and 1:13.22. Potomac River joined the vanguard on the turn, took over with an eighth of a mile to run and edged clear for the 45-1 surprise.
Potomac River, a 4-year-old Kentucky-bred son of English Channel out of the With Approval mare Reba’s Approval, covered the 1 1/8 miles over a Matt Winn Turf Course that was rated as “soft” in 1:51.20.
Potomac River, who carried 117 pounds (note: he was assigned 114 pounds but Vargas was three pounds over), paid $93.40, $36.20 and $14. Set the Sail, a 16-1 price with Jon Court and 115 pounds in the saddle, returned $17.20 and $9.60. Grand Arch, ridden by Alan Garcia, finished a half-length back of the runner-up and paid $5.80.
Villandry, Daddy Nose Best, defending champ Keep Up, 5-2 favorite Coalport, Olympic Thunder-BRZ, Skyring and Ol Army completed the order of finish. Exothermic, Kalamos, Seruni, Star Channel and Tahoe Lake-BRZ were scratched.
The victory was worth $68,501 and increased Potomac River’s earnings to $231,436 with a career record of 18-5-2-2. It was the first graded stakes victory for Potomac River and his 31-year-old Turfway Park-based trainer. Baez has been training since 2009.
“It was a nice race,” said Baez, who entered in the race because there are limited turf racing opportunities in Northern Kentucky said. “This horse is just getting better and better and better. We wanted to take a shot and it kind of worked out good. He just loved this (soft) turf. We got a big run at the end. That’s how you win these races anyway.”
This was the second graded stakes win of the year for Vargas, who left Peru in 2008 to ride in the United States. He pulled a 21-1 upset aboard Funnys Approval in the $250,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap (GII) at Laurel Park in February.
Racing at Churchill Downs continues Sunday with a nine-race program that begins at 12:40 p.m. (all times Eastern). It will mark Day 21 of the 25-day Fall Meet. Closing day is Saturday, Nov. 30.
Churchill Downs will be bathed in pink Sunday to honor the return of “Horses and Hope,” the initiative created in 2008 by Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear with the Kentucky Cancer Program and the Pink Stable. The mission of the event is to increase breast cancer awareness, education, screening and treatment referral among Kentucky’s horse industry workers and their families.
Sunday also is the final Family Fun Day Presented by Kroger of the Fall Meet. Events include a petting zoo, pony-pulled sleigh rides and a special appearance by Santa Claus. Kiddos also can decorate holiday ornaments. The activities will take place in the Plaza and Plaza Balcony from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
RIVER CITY HANDICAP QUOTES
SERGIO BAEZ, trainer of POTOMAC RIVER (winner): “It was a nice race. This horse is just getting better and better and better. He just loved this turf.”
“He’s faced some nice horses but he never placed in a stakes. I wasn’t really surprised. He was just doing good and trained good. He just got the job done today. We got a big run at the end. That’s how you win these races anyway.”
Q: Is this your biggest win? “So far, yes.”
Q: Why did you decide to run in the stakes? “It’s later in the year and we stable at Turfway so we don’t really don’t have many chances to run on the grass anymore. So we wanted to take a shot and it kind of worked out good.”
JUAN VARGAS, jockey of POTOMAC RIVER (winner): “He’s a nice horse. The last time I rode him I had him too far back so I didn’t want to do that again. The last three-eighths (of a mile), he ran hard today. ”
Q: Were you as surprised as the bettors were? “For me? No. I knew I had a chance because last time I was too far back. There were some nice horses but the field wasn’t too tough.”
CHARLIE LOPRESTI, trainer of SET THE SAIL (2nd) and VILLANDRY (4th): “I knew Set the Sail was gonna run big and he finished second, but Villandry was probably the best horse in the race. He just didn’t handle it (the course) the whole way down the backside. He made all kinds of ground up, if you look where he came from. He spotted the field 10 lengths.”
JON COURT, jockey on SET THE SAIL (2nd): “I had a good trip. We settled off some of that speed. He (trainer Brian Lynch) told me he gets a little anxious, but he’s got him to where you can work him. He settled for me and made a big run. I thought I was home free and I had a bridle-full of horse, then that longshot came around me. But that’s horse racing.”
BRIAN LYNCH, trainer of GRAND ARCH (3rd) – via telephone from Gulfstream Park: “I thought he ran well. I thought maybe he was about to make a nice move on the outside and had he stayed there, it might have been a little better result. But he swung back to the inside and that might have made a difference,"
ALAN GARCIA, jockey on GRAND ARCH (3rd): “He ran huge. He broke good and was in a good spot. We saved all the ground we wanted. He just got outrun, but he ran good and I couldn’t have been happier with him.”
JULIEN LEPAROUX, jockey on VILLANDRY (4th as the favorite): “The winner was actually with us in the back. The track is soft and a little slippery, too. It’s hard for most of these horses to handle this kind of track, but he did pretty good and he gave me a nice run at the end.”