Trainer Homer Hochstetler cherished his first trip to the Hambletonian last year with Whit, and hopes to be back in this year’s edition of harness racing’s $1.5 million classic on Saturday, August 4 with Big Chocolate.
On Saturday night at the Meadowlands Racetrack, Big Chocolate looks to go two-for-two in New Jersey Sire Stakes when he leaves from post two in the second race, one of two $19,500 divisions.
With Dave Miller in the sulky, Big Chocolate won the fastest of three opening round splits last week in 1:54.3 for owner and breeder Richard Keys of Chicago, Illinois.
As a two-year-old in 2011, Big Chocolate won an elimination for the Peter Haughton Memorial in 1:57 over a sloppy track and finished third in the final. The son of 2006 Hambletonian runner-up Chocolatier took a mark of 1:54.3 in a division of the International Stallion Stake at The Red Mile.
“He was a big colt last year and just needed to grow into himself a bit,” noted Hochstetler, 52. “He didn’t get a whole lot bigger over the winter because he was big anyway. He’s mentally matured, but never acted bad. After he won in Lexington he caught a bladder infection. We treated it and took him to Canada for the Breeders Crown. He seemed okay, but we probably shouldn’t have done that. Dave [driver Dave Miller] doesn’t know why he made the break in his Breeders Crown elimination. It was likely the colt telling us it was time to shut it down for the year.”
Hochstetler enjoyed his initial experience in the Hambletonian last year with Whit, who qualified for the final and finished seventh. “It was exciting as expected, a lot of hoopla, but it would’ve been better if we hadn’t got run into by a breaker [Manofmanymissions],” recalled Hochstetler. “We’ve got a much better chance with Big Chocolate this time around. He’s a much better horse.”
Big Chocolate has returned this season with two straight wins, a 1:55.4 blowout at Balmoral Park with Hochstetler in the bike, then last Saturday’s 1:54.3 score by a head over Market Square.
“He’s obviously come back as a strong horse, who thrives on the mile track,” said Hochstetler. “We’ll ride out the sires stakes here, and he’s got the Earl Beal Memorial at Pocono Downs [eliminations on June 15].”
Big Chocolate carries the hopes and dreams of Richard Keys, who is retired from the Chicago Board of Trade.
“I’ve known Richard Keys for about 10 years,” said Hochstetler. “He decided one day to buy a farm about five or six years ago and get into the breeding business. He went to Harrisburg and bought four or five trotting broodmares, and one of them was Shez Mine, the dam of Big Chocolate. Unfortunately, his wife had contracted Multiple Sclerosis, and he eventually had to disperse his stock. So, this is the only horse he has left.”
Hochstetler also sends out Mrs D in a $20,000 filly NJSS division. Bred and owned by his wife, Connie Hochstetler, the Chocolatier filly is out of the dam Quillo. That makes her a half-sister to Kadabra, the 2002 Trotter of the Year Hochstetler developed. Mrs D leaves from the rail in race five.
“Mrs D is named after the wife of the late Erwin F. Dygert, who was involved with Hawthorne Race Course. We didn’t stake her too heavy. I just don’t think she’s as good as Check Me Out and Win Missy B.”
Hochstetler has been a mainstay on the Chicago racing circuit, and the Bremen, Indiana native now has a seven-horse stable based at Vernon Downs for the summer stakes season.