Ice Chocolat a Stubborn Gate-To-Wire Winner of G3 Poker

June 8, 2024

Ice Chocolat victorious in the Poker (Angelo Lieto)

By Keith McCalmont – NYRA Press Office

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Ice Chocolat set a solid tempo and turned back all comers with a stubborn gate-to-wire score in Saturday’s Grade 3, $350,000 Poker, a one-mile inner turf test for older horses, at Saratoga Race Course.

Trained by Hall of Famer Mark Casse for owners Gary Barber, Wachtel Stable and Peter Deutsch, the 6-year-old son of Goldikovic utilized new tactics to make the grade under an aggressive steer by Jose Ortiz. At 24-1, Ice Chocolat was the second longest shot on the board behind his 29-1 stablemate Lucky Score.

“He brought his ‘A’ game today. It was great,” Casse said. “You have to give a lot of credit to Jose. I don’t give instructions. I told him to just play the break and see what happens. He said he broke running and from there, catch me if you can.

“This horse doesn’t run on the lead usually, but one thing about this horse is he does get himself in a little trouble so he’s actually a better horse than he looks,” added Casse. “Today, obviously making the lead, Jose won it in the first half-mile. And he had nothing to get in his way. He’s a pretty good horse.”

Ortiz hustled Ice Chocolat to the front from post 4 and set splits of 24.41 seconds and 48.17 over the firm turf, with Talk of the Nation stalking to his outside from second position and Mysterious Night saving ground in third under William Buick.

Irad Ortiz, Jr. asked Talk of the Nation for his best approaching the final turn and advanced alongside the pacesetter, looming as the one to beat. But Ice Chocolat was not done yet, digging in gamely and kicking on from the top of the lane as Ortiz, Jr. implored Talk of the Nation to go on by. Mysterious Night kept on from his inside position down the lane, pinned in by Carl Spackler, and closed with purpose when shown to the outside late but could only manage to land second, one length back of the winner and a head in front of Talk of the Nation. Ice Chocolat covered the distance in 1:33.97.

Casa Creed was a further length back in fourth with Carl Spackler, Kubrick and Lucky Score rounding out the order of finish. Front Run the Fed was scratched.

Ortiz, who won the Grade 1 New York presented by Rivers Casino on Friday here, said he played the break.

“Mark usually doesn’t give instructions, so I see that he broke clean, so I help him into the turn and see what happens,” Ortiz said. “I wasn’t expecting to be there but how he broke; I would intend to be there. If they clear me, then I take back, but they left me alone and the horse took care of the rest.”

Ice Chocolat made a pair of starts last summer at the Spa, finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Kelso and third in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap with rallying efforts. He shortened up successfully traveling six furlongs in Grade 2 company at Woodbine Racetrack when a close third in the Nearctic on turf and second, by a nose, in the Kennedy Road on Tapeta.

Ice Chocolat heads to the winner’s circle (Janet Napolitano)

Casse said Ice Chocolat could return to the Spa for another shot at the Grade 1, $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap on August 10 – a race the Hall of Famer has won previously with World Approval [2017] and Got Stormy [2019, 2021]. The one-mile test for 3-year-olds and up offers a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile in November at Del Mar.

“He’s shown in the past that he likes Saratoga. You can go back two or three races where he showed his class, but he just got unlucky,” Casse said. “In turf racing you need some luck. When you go to the lead nobody gets in your way.

“I would think we’ll see him here back at Saratoga in a stakes race,” added Casse. “He likes it here. Nothing is in mind right now. We’ll look. Maybe long term, the Fourstardave. We like that race.”

Buick lamented not being able to extract the Charlie Appleby-trained Mysterious Night from the rail earlier.

“He ran well in there. He just got locked in at the wrong time,” Buick said. “Once he leveled out, he picked up really well. He’s definitely better at that trip – the mile – and he ran right up to his best form.”

Ortiz, Jr. said he had no excuses for Talk of the Nation after pressing the pace throughout.

“The winner came out running. I thought I’d be the speed but they break running so I went into the first turn and sat off of him,” Ortiz, Jr. said. “I was traveling good. We had no excuse. We started running at the three-eighths pole and I couldn’t catch him.”

Bred in Brazil by Haras Niju, Ice Chocolat banked $192,500 in victory, improving his record to 26-7-6-4. He returned $50 for a $2 win bet.

Live racing resumes Sunday with the 12-race Closing Day program of the four-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival at Saratoga, featuring the Grade 1, $150,000 Beverly R. Steinman steeplechase in Race 1, and six New York-bred stakes to celebrate the best of racing in the Empire State for New York Showcase Day. The $125,000 Mike Lee is carded as Race 3, with the $200,000 Commentator in Race 6; the $200,000 Critical Eye in Race 8; and three consecutive stakes to close the day with the $125,000 Mount Vernon in Race 10; the $1250,000 Bouwerie in Race 11 and the $125,000 Kingston in the finale. First post is 12:50 p.m. Eastern.

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