03/28/2015 6:14PM

Chocolate Ride wires field in Muniz Memorial

Alexander Barkoff/Hodges Photography
Chocolate Ride wins the Mervin H. Muniz Memorial Handicap by a half-length Saturday at Fair Grounds.

NEW ORLEANS – The 5-year-old gelding Chocolate Ride, the claim that just keeps giving for trainer Brad Cox and owner John Wentworth, paid off again Saturday with a course record-setting victory in the Mervin H. Muniz Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds.

Ridden by Joe Talamo, Chocolate Ride led all the way, holding off the late-running favorite Slumber to win the $300,000, Grade 2 race by a half-length. Chocolate Ride ran about 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.18. The previous record was 1:48.29, set by Mystery Giver in 2004. Paroled finished third, a half-length behind Slumber, in a field of six 4-year-olds and up.

Chocolate Ride, a gelding whom Cox claimed for $40,000 in November at Churchill, has won his last three races, all on turf at about 1 1/8 miles. His previous victory came in his stakes debut in the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap.

In that race, he got away with a moderate pace and kicked clear without being threatened. In the Muniz, Paroled pressed Chocolate Ride on the backstretch, ensuring that the pace would be solid, and he had to work harder in the stretch. But when Slumber loomed on the outside, Chocolate Ride withstood the challenge.

"They probably didn't want him to get too far in front,” Cox said. "What a nice horse.”

Talamo, who is from Marrero, a New Orleans suburb on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, was the leading rider at Fair Grounds as an apprentice in 2006-2007. On Saturday, he was riding here for only the second time since then, and the Muniz victory was his first in front of the home folks since 2007.

"It felt so great,” he said. “I remember Mr. Mervin when he was racing secretary. To win this race on this horse was incredible.”

The race unfolded differently from how Cox pictured it would. He said his instructions to Talamo were to sit behind Coalport if he ran for the early lead, as he had done in Maxxam Gold Cup. But Coalport didn't show early speed, so Talamo let Chocolate Ride gallop to the front from the inside.

Chocolate Ride ran the first quarter-mile in 24.08 seconds and the half in 48.31 with Parole, ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., stalking in second place. On the backstretch, Paroled pushed to about a half-length behind Chocolate Ride, who ran six furlongs in 1:11.73.

Turning into the stretch, Chocolate Ride lengthened his lead on Paroled, as Slumber, with Alan Garcia riding for trainer Chad Brown, was rallying on the outside. Talamo stayed busy on Chocolate Ride, and he wouldn't let Slumber pass.

"He did everything so nice, relaxed on the front end, and really held those two horses off,” Talamo said. "He was relaxed, and I had a lot of horse left.”

Garcia said Slumber hurt his chances by not breaking sharply.

"I was a little disappointed the way he started from the gate,” Garcia said. "I had to ask him to put him in the race.”

Hernandez said he was pleased with the performance of Paroled, a former claimer trained by Angel Montano. Hernandez said he thought Coalport would pressure Chocolate Ride in the early running.

"When he didn't go, we were put in that spot,” Hernandez said. "In these kind of races, you can't let a horse get around there easy, so we put the pressure on. My horse gave a good effort.”

Chocolate Ride, who paid $10.60, will head to Churchill Downs, where he might run next in the Woodford Reserve on Kentucky Derby Day, Cox said. Because Chocolate Ride is a gelding, there's no need to rush into a race just because it's a Grade 1.

Making money is the object with him, Cox said. And that's what Chocolate Ride has been doing quite nicely since being claimed.