When Chocolate Ride crossed the G2 Mervin Muniz Jr. Handicap wire first by a half-length over favored Slumber (GB), part of owner John Wentworth still couldn't believe it: the 5-year-old former claimer is Wentworth's first Thoroughbred racehorse.
Wentworth spent 15 years training, driving, and owning Standardbred horses in his native Michigan. When the industry began to sour, he went north to Ontario, where there was more money in trotters and pacers. Then, as he puts it, he “decided to shove that down and move on to a new chapter.”
Although he thought he'd left the horse world behind him, Wentworth found himself drawn back in 2014 when a package of tickets to a Churchill Downs suite and accommodations came up for bid at a charity auction. After a day at the races, he realized he couldn't stay away any longer.
Before his departure from harness racing, most of Wentworth's success with Standardbreds centered around the claiming game. He met Thoroughbred trainer Brad Cox and began looking at tape of claiming races.
“I always enjoyed that end of the business. I like to claim horses and win races,” said Wentworth. “I was looking for something that I thought had the opportunity to improve. I brought it to Brad and right away he liked the horse but I have to give him credit because prior to that there were probably ten of them he shot down that I liked.”
Eventually, Wentworth turned his attention to a maiden special weight at Keeneland's 2013 fall meet. It was Chocolate Ride's second start for owner John Oxley and trainer Mark Casse. Though the horse missed his maiden win by three-quarters of a length, Wentworth was struck by his movement after the wire.
“I could see down the lane, like the final sixteenth, him change speeds and go faster,” Wentworth said. “I just kept watching that replay over and over. Even after we raced him the first time and the second time, I kept going back to that replay, knowing that we still had a great opportunity with this horse.”
The race stuck with him, and Cox agreed that the effort showed real potential. When Chocolate Ride dropped into a $40,000 claimer at Churchill Downs in late 2014, the pair jumped at the chance and got the horse. Cox was impressed enough by the gelding's potential that he tried keeping him out of the claiming ranks while sticking to the turf Chocolate Ride seemed to thrive on. The team also opted to remove the blinkers that had been part of his race-day gear to improve the horse's focus.
The strategy paid off: Chocolate Ride quickly racked up a win and a second at the allowance level and escalated to the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap, where he was a sound winner despite being 13-1.
“I don't think I even thought about [him being a graded stakes horse],” said Wentworth of the gelding's transition from claiming to the Muniz victory. “It was very emotional. It was a very surreal day for me. I had my whole family there with me, which to bring a 4- and a 5-year-old and my teenage son was not easy I'm sure for my wife…but to have that happen with my family there was great.
“Going into that day, we said whether the horse finished first or last we were going to enjoy the day and enjoy the moment. By the grace of God, it turned out to be a whole lot more than that.”
Wentworth is a well-known real estate agent in southeast Michigan, where his biggest successes have included luxurious lakefront homes. He believes the skills that build a good real estate business work in the horse industry, too—prime among them, passion and communication.
“I think there's a really good correlation between then,” he said. “Dealing with the business and dealing with people, all of those things mirror each other a little bit. I think my experience with Standardbreds and doing that for 15 years gave me great insight to be successful in real estate from dealing with the people.”
Although Chocolate Ride was his first Thoroughbred, he's no longer the only one—Wentworth has claimed a few others and has some young horses waiting to make their first starts. They will have big shoes to fill.
Chocolate Ride's next start is not yet set in stone, but Wentworth anticipates the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby day may be the next target.
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