Front-running Warleigh nearly pulled off a theft of Sunday's $172,800 River City Handicap (gr. IIIT) on a yielding Churchill Downs turf, but he could not hold off the relentless charge of upsetter Hard Buck in the final stages.
The Brazilian-bred Hard Buck, ridden by Brice Blanc for trainer Ken McPeek and owner Jose Carlos Carnevale's Team Victory I, got up to win the 1 1/8-mile test by a half-length in 1:51 3/5. Rowans Park, a length farther behind came on well in the stretch to take third by a length over Gretchen's Star.
Hard Buck remained undefeated in three starts in the United States, all stakes.
"Brice did a great job," said McPeek, who earned his fifth Churchill stakes victory and his first since he captured the 2002 Louisville Handicap with Pisces. "There wasn't a lot of pace and he's never run on soft ground before. Actually, we've had a little bit of foot trouble with him lately – a little bit of a bruise on the heel – and we were working, working working. We didn't know how he would like soft ground, but obviously he likes it."
Sharbayan, the 9-5 favorite in the field of 10 ridden by Pat Day, finished fifth, rallying mildly after angling out nine wide for the stretch run.
Warleigh, ridden by Corey Lanerie, set a moderate pace of :24 3/5, :49 2/5, 1:14 2/5 and 1:39 1/5 as Blanc tucked Hard Buck on the rail directly behind the front-runner. In the stretch, Hard Buck eased up on the hedge to engage Warleigh, who pushed on again to take a short-lived one-length lead. But as the two battled on down the lane, Hard Buck kept coming on and tenaciously edged to the front close to the wire in spite of being bumped slightly by Warleigh.
"I was pretty confident when I got to the quarter pole, but the other horse kind of sprinted away from me and I didn't know if I was going to get there or not," said Blanc. "But he just showed a lot of heart and a lot of desire. Once I got my momentum built up, he just went right by him."
The French-born Blanc, who moved from California to Kentucky last fall, notched his first stakes victory at Churchill Downs.
A 4-year-old colt by Spend a Buck from Social Secret (Secreto), Hard Buck was coming off a neck victory over Gretchen's Star in the Kentucky Cup Mile at Kentucky Downs on Sept. 20. A group I winner in his native Brazil, he has won eight of 13 in his career with earnings of $233,148. The victory was worth $107,136.
Ignored at 11-1, Hard Buck paid $25.20, $10.20 and $7.60. Warleigh returned $4.60 and $4.20. Rowans Park, ridden by John McKee, showed for $6.20. The $2 exacta was worth $90.20.
Act of War was sixth, followed by Bud's Magic, Della Francesca, False Promises and Foster's Landing. Lacer, Dr. Kashnikow and Better Talk Now were scratched.