Trainer Brian Lynch figured Heart to Heart would be the pacesetter in the $200,000 Knickerbocker (gr. IIIT) at Belmont Park and the son of English Channel was true to form, as he jumped out to the front early in the Oct. 10 test and led all the way, easily holding off runner-up Jay Gatsby.
Making his first start in more than four months after successive starts at the grade I level, Terry Hamilton's Heart to Heart won by a half-length with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard and finished the 1 1/8 miles on yielding turf in 1:50.62.
The Knickerbocker marks the seventh graded win for 5-year-old Heart to Heart, who was Canada's champion 3-year-old male of 2014, but heading into to Monday's race Lynch had concerns about the distance although his runner won a stakes at Churchill Downs last fall at 1 1/8 miles.
"The question mark was the mile and an eighth distance, but some of his best races are when he's fresh," he said. "When you handicap the race there wasn't a lot of speed in it and if they left him alone he would be able to dictate his terms. He seems to do his best running late if he gets to dictate the terms. He's not a real big horse, he doesn't take a lot of work to get ready. It's nice when a plan comes together."
Heart to Heart ignited a three-race win streak last November, wiring the River City (gr. III) at Churchill at the Knickerbocker distance and opened 2016 by setting the pace en route to victories in Ft. Lauderdale Stakes (gr. IIT) in January and Canadian Turf Stakes (gr. IIT) in February, both at Gulfstream Park. Subsequently second to Miss Temple City in the Maker's 46 Mile (gr. IT) in April at Keeneland, he was fourth in the Shoemaker Mile (gr. IT) in June before heading to the sidelines for the summer.
Ortiz said Heart to Heart was poised for a winning effort Monday. He led March by about a length while setting a moderate pace. Jay Gatsby tracked from third before advancing on the rail to take second in early stretch and closed determinedly but ran out of ground.
"He's got tactical speed. He sent me to the lead and I tried to slow down," Ortiz said of the winner. "It was soft ground, so I tried to hold it together as long as I could. They brought him ready to run a mile and an eighth today."
Heart to Heart paid $8.40, $4.20, and $3.10, Jay Gatsby returned $3.80 and $2.60 and Blacktype paid $3.50 to show.
Bred in Ontario by Red Hawk Ranch, Heart to Heart is out of the winning Silver Deputy mare Ask the Question and improved his career record to 10-3-2 from 23 starts. He was a $25,348 purchase by Hamilton from the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society (Ontario division)'s 2012 Canadian-bred yearling sale, consigned by Ballycroy Training Centre.