ELMONT, N.Y. - Rounding back into the form that earned him New York-bred Champion Older Male honors in 2013, King Kreesa led an exceptional group of older turf runners gate-to-wire to win the Grade 3, $300,000 Poker on Saturday at Belmont Park.
Breaking from post 3, King Kreesa shot to the front under Jose Ortiz and moved comfortably on the lead as jockey Luis Saez and Heart to Heart were content to sit in second.
Towing the field through moderate fractions of 23.69 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 47.76 for a half, and 1:10.97 for three-quarters, King Kreesa moved sweetly into the stretch but was soon confronted by a host of pursuers.
Multiple graded stakes winner Vyjack, who was making his turf debut and first start for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, rallied widest and fastest of all, but King Kreesa remained resilient, keeping his foes at bay to prevail by three-quarters of a length and complete a mile on the Widener grass course in 1:33.48.
"I was surprised to get the lead early," said Ortiz. "The four horse [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. I think 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, trained by David Donk for Gerald and Susan Kresa, won the 2013 edition of the Poker, but seemed to take a step back in 2014, when he recorded one win from only three starts. The dark bay gelding didn't seem to pick it up much in his first two starts of 2015, finishing sixth in the Elusive Quality and third in the Kingston, but bounced back to his best form on Saturday.
"He did great," said Gerald Kresa. "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."
Kresa indicated that his star turf runner, who returned $36.80 on a $2 win wager and increased his earnings to $985,370, could make his next start on July 11 at Belmont in the $150,000 Forbidden Apple as a possible prep for the Grade 2, $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap on August 15 at Saratoga Race Course.
Vyjack finished in second, a head in front of Il Campione, who was followed home by All Included, Long On Value, Paris Vegas, Heart to Heart, Howe Great and In Speight Ofitall. Ironicus was scratched.