Terry Hamilton’s Heart to Heart led every step of the way in Saturday’s 38th running of the $100,000 River City Handicap (Grade III) at Churchill Downs and beat Thatcher Street by two lengths.

Trained by Brian Lynch and ridden by Julien Leparoux, Heart to Heart covered the 1 1/8 miles over a Matt Winn Turf Course rated as “good” in 1:52.16 – the slowest of 26 runnings of the race at the distance on grass.

Heart to Heart, who sports distinctive heart-shaped star on his forehead, broke alertly from post three and rattled off comfortable fractions of :24.43, :48.86, 1:13.55 and 1:38.76 without pressure at any stage of the race. He drew clear in the stretch and held Thatcher Street at bay after the runner-up chased the pacesetter from fourth down the backstretch before making a brief bid in the stretch.

“That’s how he likes to run – free and on the lead,” said Leparoux, who also rode last year’s River City winner, Villandry. “I knew that I was the only speed … I was just hoping he would keep his lead the whole way through and he did.”

The victory was worth $60,140 to the 4-year-old Canadian-bred son of English Channel and increased his earnings to $516,780 with his seventh win in 18 starts.

It was his third stakes win over as many starts at Churchill Downs. He was victorious 2014 renewals of the Jefferson Cup (GIII) and Commonwealth Turf (GIII), which were restricted to 3-year-olds.

“He’s a tough little bugger when they leave him alone on the lead,” Lynch said via telephone. “This was a nice little win coming back against older horses this time. The big question mark was could he get the mile-and-an-eighth and he did. We’ve been patient with him all year; he seems to like running fresh. He seems to like the track at Churchill so we’ll point to some of the races there in the summer. For the winter, we’ll take him down to Palm Meadows and more or less target races like the Woodford Reserve [Turf Classic].”

Heart to Heart, who carried the 121-pound, returned mutuels of $5.20, $3.60 and $3.60 as the 8-5 second betting choice in the field of eight older horses. Thatcher Street, ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr. at 115 pounds, returned $6.20 and $4.40. Perfect Title was another three lengths back in third under Ricardo Santana Jr. and 115 pounds, and paid $6.80 to show.

Dac, 4-5 favorite Messi (GER), Kalamos, Gabriel’s Cat and Knights Nation completed the order of finish. Are You Kidding Me was scratched.

Favored Messi (GER) was unhurried in the early stages of the race and never challenged the winner.

“He did not get his feet out of the ground all right,” jockey John Velazquez said. “He could not get them out of it, for whatever reason. It was a little too soft for him.”

BRIAN LYNCH (via telephone), trainer of HEART TO HEART (winner): “He’s a tough little bugger when they leave him alone on the lead. This was a nice little win coming back against older horses this time. The big question mark was could he get the mile-and-an-eighth and he did. We’ve been patient with him all year; he seems to like running fresh. He seems to like the track at Churchill so we’ll point to some of the races there in the summer. For the winter, we’ll take him down to Palm Meadows and more or less target races like the Woodford Reserve [Turf Classic].”

JULIEN LEPAROUX, jockey of HEART TO HEART (winner): “I knew that I was the only speed and he likes to run alone on the lead anyway so we broke well and got him to relax on the lead and he did. I knew he’d run his race. I was just hoping he would keep his lead the whole way through and he did. He’s the same horse he was last year. If you look at him he’s very tiny but he has a big heart. His name is perfect for him. As long as you don’t fight with him and let him do his thing, he always runs his race.”

IAN WILKES, trainer of THATCHER STREET (runner-up): “He ran real good. He was just second-best today. The winner is a nice horse, so I’m proud of him.”

BRIAN HERNANDEZ JR., jockey on THATCHER STREET (runner-up): “He ran really well and got beat by a horse that’s proven. I thought we were running good to be second because the horse on the lead never had any pressure. He’s a class horse and kind of had everything go his way and we were second best today.”

JOHN VELAZQUEZ, jockey on MESSI (fifth as the 4-5 favorite): “He did not get his feet out of the ground all right. He could not get them out of it, for whatever reason. It was a little too soft for him.”

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