July 16, 2024

Ice Chocolat plays tactical cards well to spring $50 upset in Poker

Ice Chocolat wins the Poker Stakes at Saratoga
Ice Chocolat wins the Poker Stakes at Saratoga (Photo by Coglianese Photography / Credit to Susie Raisher)

Brazilian-bred Ice Chocolat had yet to win a stakes, or dictate the pace, since arriving in North America two years ago, but jockey Jose Ortiz’s inspired change of tactics in Saturday’s $350,000 Poker S. (G3) produced a 24-1 surprise. Getting away with tepid splits on the firm inner turf course at Saratoga, the Mark Casse trainee repelled Talk of the Nation and held the late rally of Mysterious Night to score his breakthrough.

Co-owners Gary Barber and Wachtel Stable, who campaign Ice Chocolat with Peter Deutsch, were celebrating back-to-back upsets. In the prior race, the True North (G2), Baby Yoda rolled at odds of 9-1 for another partnership involving Barber and Wachtel.

Ice Chocolat did have a noteworthy piece of course-and-distance form, as the troubled third-placer to Casa Creed in last summer’s Fourstardave (G1). That came with his typical closing style, however, and it was difficult to envision this old dog, so to speak, coming up with a new trick. The six-year-old also had to engineer an eight-length form turnaround from the May 2 Opening Verse S. at Churchill Downs, where the re-opposing Carl Spackler and Talk of the Nation fought out the finish and Ice Chocolat was a non-threatening eighth.

Ortiz wasted no time in putting Ice Chocolat on the lead, although he gave the horse credit for that positioning.

“Honestly, I didn’t have any plan leaving the gate,” Ortiz said. “Mark (Casse) usually doesn’t give instructions so I see that he broke clean, so I help him into the turn and see what happens. 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.”

Talk of the Nation was expected to take up the front-running role as he done in the Opening Verse. But jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. opted not to get aggressive once Ice Chocolat was in front. Thus Talk of the Nation let Ice Chocolat go, and the eventual winner waltzed through uncontested fractions of :24.41 and :48.17.

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

By the time Ice Chocolat reached six furlongs in 1:11.34, Talk of the Nation accosted him, but the proverbial damage had been done. Ice Chocolat found more when Talk of the Nation drew alongside, and he edged away in the stretch.

Carl Spackler, the 9-5 favorite, couldn’t quicken as usual from his stalking spot. But he held his position long enough to keep Mysterious Night pocketed on the inside until it was too late. Once Mysterious Night extricated himself, the Godolphin runner took a little longer to rev up and ran out of time as the runner-up.

Talk of the Nation was relegated to third. Casa Creed, foiled by the race shape, did well to close for fourth. Carl Spackler was a flat fifth, trailed by Chad Brown stablemate Kubrick and the tailed-off Lucky Score. Front Run the Fed was scratched.

Ice Chocolat held sway by a length in 1:33.97 and furnished a $50 windfall for win bettors.

“I was able to wait as long as I wanted,” Ortiz said, “and when I asked him to go, he responded very good. He gave me an explosive kick. We are just very happy with his race, we weren’t expecting it to be (on the lead) like that.”

“He brought his ‘A’ game today,” Casse said. “It was great. 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. 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.

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

Mysterious Night is an illustration of that point, as trainer Charlie Appleby was wishing that he could have found a seam sooner.

“I’d say he could have done with getting that break a bit earlier,” Appleby said, “but he’s hit the line well, so there’s encouragement there going forward that he’ll win one out here, for sure. He saw out the mile and it was a good, solid run. I’m very pleased with it, it’s just that when you have that one-draw, you have the perfect pitch around there, but you need the luck for those gaps to open. They just weren’t there, unfortunately.”

Godolphin jockey William Buick offered the same assessment.

“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.”

Ice Chocolat, whose previous stakes victory came in a Group 3 at Gavea back in 2021, was recording a new career high here. His resume reads 26-7-6-4, $550,254, including runner-up efforts in the past two runnings of the Kennedy Road (G2). Aside from the aforementioned Fourstardave, he placed in the 2023 Jacques Cartier (G3) and Nearctic (G2) as well as the March 2 Canadian Turf (G3) at Gulfstream Park.

Bred by Haras Niju in Brazil, Ice Chocolat is by Goldikovic, a son of all-time greats Galileo and Goldikova who failed to live up to his pedigree on the racecourse. Ice Chocolat is out of Amor Chocolat, a Northern Afleet half-sister to multiple Brazilian Group 1 victress Light Green. This is the further family of Infinidad, a Grade/Group 1 star both in the U.S. and in her native Chile.