Potomac River upsets the River City Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Potomac River upsets the River City Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs

Potomac River Springs River City Upset

The 45-1 shot fired with a strong late run Nov. 23 at Churchill Downs.

If any runner had an excuse to throw in the towel after the start of the $116,300 River City Handicap (gr. IIIT) Nov. 23 at Churchill Downs, it was Potomac River (VIDEO).

Bothered at the start by Skyring, who veered inside strongly from his far outside post, the 45-1 shot was pinched between horses and taken off stride at the break.

But a patient ride from jockey Juan Vargas and a grinding late run brought 4-year-old Potomac River to the winner's circle at the end of the 1 1/8-mile turf event, with the English Channel  colt delivering a huge win for owner Maribel Ruelas and the first graded stakes score for trainer Sergio Baez.

The victory was worth $68,501 and increased Potomac River's earnings to $231,436 with a career record of 5-2-2 from 18 starts. It was the first graded stakes victory for Potomac River and his 31-year-old Turfway Park-based trainerm who has been training since 2009.

"It was a nice race," said Baez, who entered the race because there are limited turf opportunities in Northern Kentucky. "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 (gr.II) at Laurel Park in February.

Bred in Kentucky by Mereworth Farm out of the With Approval mare Reba's Approval, Potomac River was a $2,300 purchase from the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky February mixed sale from the Mereworth Farm dispersal when consigned by Blandford Stud. Earlier this year, he was fourth in his only other graded start, the Sept. 14 Kentucky Cup Turf Stakes (gr. IIIT). He then ran fifth in the Robert F. Carey Memorial Handicap on the Hawthorne lawn, but returned to Churchill, where he won a one-mile turf allowance back in June, with a good runner-up effort at the distance in a Nov. 8 optional claimer, also on the turf.

After an eventful break, Potomac River settled ninth in the field of 10, far behind pacesetters Skyring and Ol Army, who headed out together to lead through an opening quarter in :24.02. Ol Army inched ahead on the inside to show the way through a half in :48.45 and three-quarters in 1:13.22, and Skyring faded as 16-1 shot Set the Sail briefly inherited the advantage when the field turned for home.

Potomac River was circling five wide, however, and after lugging in slightly while changing leads, took over with a furlong to go and drew clear. Vargas maintained vigorous handling of the colt all the way to the wire, finishing two lengths ahead of Set the Sail in a final time of 1:51.20 on turf labeled "good." Grand Arch was a half length back in third. 

Potomac River returned $93.40, $36.20, and $14 under a 117-pound impost while Set the Sail brought $17.20 and $9.60 with Grand Arch paying $5.80. Completing the order of finish were Villandry, 118-pound highweight Daddy Nose Best , 2012 River City winner Keep Up , 5-2 favorite Coalport, Olympic Thunder, Skyring, and Ol Army. Star Channel, Seruni, Tahoe Lake, Exothermic, and Kalamos scratched.