LOUISVILLE — As he galloped out aboard his mount Karelian after Saturday's Grade III River City Handicap, jockey Bill Troilo was feeling pretty certain of himself for all the wrong reasons.
After more than two decades in the saddle and nearly 20,000 mounts, Troilo thought he had again lost out on his first career graded stakes triumph. He was confident the Paul McGee-trained Demarcation got his nose down first at the finish of the 11⁄8-mile turf test.
But Troilo learned his initial assessment was only half right.
The veteran jockey earned a well-deserved milestone Saturday when Karelian dead-heated with Demarcation for the victory in the $114,400 River City at Churchill Downs.
Troilo picked up the ride on Karelian late in the morning after an ill Calvin Borel had to get off his mounts.
Aboard the 6-year-old gelding for the first time, Troilo swept past Grade I winner Thorn Song at the head of the lane after tracking the pace in fourth and was drawing clear only to have Demarcation come running gamely under Jesus Castanon on the outside.
The 4-year-old Demarcation appeared to stick his head in front just before the wire, but Karelian bobbed his nose down just in time to create the first dead heat in the 32-year history of the race.
The duo covered the distance in 1:50.06 over a firm turf with Telling 11/2 lengths back in third.
"My honest opinion is I thought I got beat," said Troilo, who has 2,457 career victories according to Equineline. "He was outside and, at the time, his horse's head was in front of me. But my horse got his head down again and I guess that's what saved us.
"I'm thrilled to death. This was my first stakes win at Churchill and this is my first graded stakes win too. Unfortunately, sometimes we benefit from other people's misfortunes and Calvin was sick today, but I'm happy for myself."
For Karelian and Demarcation, Saturday's thrilling finish also marked the first graded stakes wins of their careers.
Demarcation, who has also earned wins on dirt and Polytrack, was dismissed at odds of 33-1 despite hitting the board in 13 of 18 career starts going in.
"It surprised me he was that big of a price today," McGee said. "He's been training well, he had a bullet work the other day and he's always been a consistent hard-running horse."
Although he has been plagued by injuries and issues during his career, Karelian has now won five of his last seven starts. He was beaten just 21/2 lengths while running fifth behind Thorn Song in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile on Oct. 4.
"When my horse is sound, he's such a good horse," trainer Rusty Arnold said. "He doesn't run but twice a year, but he's won half his starts. He's a really, really nice horse."
Thorn Song, who was coming off a ninth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Mile, faded to finish eighth in the 11-horse field after prompting the pace with Steve's Double and Canela.
"I thought I was in a good spot but when I asked him, he just didn't respond," Thorn Song jockey Robby Albarado said.