Stanley Ettinger's Tap The Admiral, wide while reaching contention on the final turn, kicked home powerfully to run down favored Package Store and win Saturday's $250,000-added Firecracker Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIT) at a mile on the turf at Churchill Downs.
The 7-1 shot, ridden by John McKee for trainer Del Carroll, held hard-charging Freefourinternet off by 1 1/4-length, with Package Store a half-length farther back in third. The final time on a firm turf was 1:35 2/5.
The 5-year-old son of Pleasant Tap captured his first graded stakes race in 27 races. It was McKee's first stakes win of any kind.
McKee held the winner off the early pace established by Pass Rush (:23 4/5, :47) as Package Store, ridden by Cornelio Velasquez, was content to race in second. At the head of the stretch, Package Store edged to the front as Rock Slide moved up. Tap the Admiral, who moved into contention on the outside on the final turn, was fourth at the top of the stretch but blew past the leaders at the eighth pole to open a daylight advantage close to home. Freefourinternet, ridden by Brice Blanc, who had to overcome the extreme inside post, come with a rapid charge late to get second, but did not threaten the winner.
"It's my first Churchill stakes win and I'm just very honored to be a part of it," said McKee. "Mr. Carroll just said take him back and don't go on the lead too early. Take him back, cover him up and make one run with him. That's exactly what I did. I had a lot of horse at the end and enough to finish up."
Tap The Admiral, who had a three-race winning streak snapped when a fading fourth in the 1 1/8-mile King Edward Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIT) in his most recent start on June 15, won for the sixth time, all on the turf, in 18 grass tries. The victory, worth $178,870, pushed his career earnings to $445,686.
Carroll won his first Churchill stakes since 1982 when he saddled Weekend Surprise to victories in the Pocahontas and Golden Rod. Carroll notched his first stakes win since August 2001 and first graded victory since October 1998.
"John (McKee) was available at entry time so we got him for the mount," Carroll said. "I hate to admit it, but he was available at 11 a.m. when they were closing entries so we got him. He fit the style of this horse. He's a little horse and we were trying to save some ground and not make a half-mile run with him, but a short run and it worked out. He's a real confident little horse and has a lot of confidence in himself and every once in a while he has the ability to back it up."
Highland Farms Inc. bred the chestnut, out of the Polish Navy mare Polish Buck, in Kentucky.
Tap The Admiral paid $16.40, $8.20 and $6. Freefourinternet returned $10.60 and $5.60. Package Store's show was $3. The $2 exacta was worth $141.80.