Gerald and Susan Kreesa's King Kreesa stole away on the front end June 13 to take the $300,000 Poker Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Belmont Park (VIDEO), becoming just the third two-time winner of a race he also won in 2013.
The 6-year-old New York-bred, a gelded son of King Cugat, was allowed to set an easy pace up front under jockey Jose Ortiz, going a quarter in :23.69 and a half in :47.76 in the mile turf test while maintaining a two-length lead on the inside path.
Favored Il Campione, off at 9-5, looked ready to range up with an outside move four wide on the final turn, but the Chilean contender flattened in his U.S. debut for trainer Chad Brown, while King Kreesa had more to give.
"He did great," Gerald Kreesa said. "They gave him the lead. Once he can relax, he has all kinds of energy at the end and he can open up on them. He held everyone off with no problem. We're very pleased with him."
Remaining 1 1/2 lengths in front of the field of nine older runners, King Kreesa went three-quarters in 1:10.97 and held off the closing bid of Vyjack by three-quarters of a length. That rival rallied strongly in his turf debut to get second by a head over Il Campione. All Included finished fourth, a half-length back.
The final time was 1:33.48 on the Widener grass course, which was rated firm.
"I was surprised to get the lead early. (Heart to Heart) looked like a fast horse on paper—his last race he went a half in :44—but you know, different track, different strategy," Ortiz said. "Things set up well for me. I saw that Irad (Ortiz, Jr.) rode him well previously and looking at it, I just tried to ride him like he rode him. I think a mile is his best distance, maybe he could stretch out a little bit, but a mile is perfect."
King Kreesa paid $36.80, $15, and $8.10 while Vyjack brought $9.40 and $7.20 at odds of 8-1. Il Campione was worth $3.40. After All Included came Long On Value, Paris Vegas, Heart to Heart, Howe Great, and In Speight Ofitall. Ironicus scratched.
The victory was the first for King Kreesa since the bay gelding took the Aug. 24 West Point Stakes last summer at Saratoga Race Course in his first outing for trainer David Donk. He seemed to take a step back in 2014, when he recorded just one win from only three starts. This year in only two outings he was sixth in the April 29 Elusive Quality and third in the May 25 Kingston, but this time bounced back to his best form.
King Kreesa was bred by Horse Partners out of the Storm Creek mare Storm's Advance. With his second Poker score, he joined fellow New York-bred Fourstardave and Affirmed Success as two-time winners of the race, while improving his record to 8-5-4 from 24 starts with earnings of $985,370.
"We could look at the (July 11) Forbidden Apple maybe and if he comes out of that one good, we might consider the (Aug. 15) Fourstardave (gr. IIT) after that," Gerald Kreesa said of future options for King Kreesa, who earned New York-bred champion older male honors in 2013.