RIVER Verdon took yesterday's $2.75 million Stewards' Cup at Sha Tin at the third time of asking, but not before his supporters had been given an enormous fright by the improving Happy Guy. River Verdon scored by a hard-fought short head with Our Pal advertising his Derby claims by running out of his skin to finish only a length back in third. It was then a short head to Sound Print in fourth with Helene Star another head back in fifth, having encountered plenty of trouble in running over the closing stages. The stewards deemed this to be the fault of his jockey Eric Legrix and suspended him for four meetings from December 4 to December 12. Given some of the uplifting performances River Verdon has put in over his illustrious career - he was scoring for the 13th time from 22 starts and has amassed the best part of $15 million in the process - there were many who had expected the 9-5 favouriteto win a shade more comfortably than he did. And jockey Basil Marcus was prepared to face up to the fact after racing that River Verdon ''is now almost seven years old''. All the same he showed tremendous courage to hold Happy Guy, on whom Mick Kinane was asking for everything over the last 100 metres. Marcus went on: ''For me he showed the qualities of a true champion today as when the other horse came to us, he really got down and battled his way to victory. ''Sure we have to face up to the fact that the years are advancing but it should also be remembered that today he has done what he hasn't done in the past - he's won the Stewards' Cup. ''It was a better performance than last season and a better performance than the one before that. ''For this reason I feel he is going into the International Cup at least as competitive as last season.'' There wasn't much pace on in the race as Gary Carter attempted to slow them all down from the front on Derek Cruz's Wind Dancer - another of the Cruz Derby hopes. He was joined on the speed by habitual front-runner Wonderful World with Helene Star enjoying a smooth passage on the inside followed by stablemates Optic Empire and Saboatan. They were followed by Happy Guy, River Verdon, Our Pal and Deerfield with Sound Print travelling strongly on the inside for Felix Coetzee. The order was little changed turning for home but River Verdon had been sent out wide as he came on the outside of Optic Empire. Passing the 400-metre marker, River Verdon was making his way to the front but was forced to make his challenge down the centre of the track. Legrix was looking for room on the inside on Helene Star and Kinane was winding up Happy Guy for his run on the inside of River Verdon. They drew away over the last 100 metres as Legrix was forced to steady on Helene Star. Our Pal ran on strongly for third. River Verdon's trainer David Hill said: ''I was always a bit worried about this race as I didn't think there would be any pace on. ''We were also forced out wide and, in the circumstances, I'm very happy with the run and the result. ''It was never going to be the perfect race for him but it should leave him spot on for the International Cup which will suit him that much better. ''It is that 200 metres farther and there should be more of a pace on throughout the race.'' Patrick Biancone was delighted with the way that Helene Star shaped as he was starting for the first time since his epic short-head second to Glen Kate in last season's International Bowl. Helene Star had also suffered an interrupted preparation which meant that he could only trial once before yesterday's race and that at Happy Valley on Tuesday. He started at eight pounds above his average racing weight of last season and considerably heavier than when he contested the Bowl last April. Biancone said: ''I'm very happy with his effort. Very happy indeed. He wasn't fully fit and will improve a lot for the run.'' Helene Star will now go for the International Cup and is highly unlikely to race again before the December 12 showpiece. Kinane had only praise for Happy Guy, saying: ''He tried and he tried and he tried. I thought he was the better of the two rides when I was offered him and Wind Dancer as he really seems to have come to himself this season.'' There were no excuses offered by Carter over Wind Dancer who finished seventh. ''He just wasn't good enough,'' he said. ''I've always thought that Our Pal may turn out to be the better of the two horses and this is how it looked today.'' But Deerfield's International Cup hopes have gone. He had every chance at the top of the straight and even looked a danger with 250 metres to run. He couldn't respond to Darren Beadman's urgings over the closing stages and finished sixth. He should do better back in handicap company.