11/23/2006 1:00AM

Ermine wins Falls City by a bob of the head

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A ferocious stretch-long duel ended in a narrow victory for Ermine when the 3-year-old filly out-nodded Joint Effort on Thursday in the Grade 2, $330,300 Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs.

With Eddie Castro substituting for injured Calvin Borel, Ermine won by a head, returning $9.20 as third choice in a field of eight fillies and mares. Cursora, at 27-1 the longest shot in the field, finished third, three lengths behind Joint Effort.

On a sunny and seasonable Thanksgiving afternoon, Sea Siren set a moderate pace while Joint Effort and Ermine raced in close pursuit. Turning for home, the two stalkers surged right past, and they staged an exciting finish, completing 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.90 over a fast track.

An objection by Mark Guidry, the rider of Joint Effort, for alleged stretch interference against the winner was quickly dismissed by the Churchill stewards.

"It was a heck of a horse race," said Dale Romans, trainer of runner-up Joint Effort, a 4-year-old who now has 4 wins and 5 seconds from 9 races over the Churchill main track. "I'm very proud of my filly."

Ronny Werner trains Ermine, an Exchange Rate filly, for the Oxbow Racing operation of Art Preston, who bought Ermine as a yearling for $45,000. Werner said he probably would take the filly to Oaklawn Park for the winter, with the Grade 1 Apple Blossom in April as the long-term objective.

Ermine was based earlier this year at Oaklawn, where she won the Honeybee before finishing second behind longshot Lemons Forever in the May 5 Kentucky Oaks. Ermine had two disappointing efforts following the Oaks, but after she rebounded with a seven-length allowance win here Nov. 1, Werner was confident she was sitting on a big effort in the Falls City.

The Falls City capped what has been a terrific introduction to Kentucky racing for Castro, who moved here in early October and posted easily the richest victory of his career aboard Miesque's Approval in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile on Nov. 4 at Churchill. Castro got the Falls City mount after Borel suffered what was initially diagnosed as a possible arm fracture in a fifth-race spill Thursday.

The two Falls City favorites were never serious factors. Sangrita, the 2-1 choice, finished seventh after racing near the back of the pack throughout, while Summerly, the 2005 Kentucky Oaks winner who was the 5-2 second choice in the final start of her career, finished fourth, a half-length behind Cursora.

Ontrack attendance was 11,812.