Yonkers, NY — “He’s back.”
That’s the first thing that went through trainer Nick DeVita’s mind after watching Heaven’s Gait score a comeback win in the $14,000 winners over at Saratoga Nov. 9.
Although the race set up for a closer as a pair of leaders hooked up in a speed duel through panels of :26.3 and 54.2, Heaven’s Gait proved impressive. The 5-year-old wheeled first-over from a 6-length deficit in sixth passing the half went three-wide around the leaders on the third turn under Jay Randall pistol grips and opened a 4-length advantage through three-quarters in 1:22.4. With Randall still statuesque in the bike, Heaven’s Gait reported home a 5-1/2-length winner in 1:52.2.
“That was a big relief to see him win the way he did at Saratoga. That’s the horse we knew we had,” DeVita said. “There was no doubt anymore that he was going to come back as good as he was.
“Obviously, we have bigger plans for him next year with the Levy and everything,” DeVita continued. “We are just trying to get his feet back under him and trying not to push him too hard. He’s come back pretty good and we’re real happy with him so far and just trying to race him back into shape now.”
The Saratoga victory was Heaven’s Gait’s first victory and only his second pari-mutuel start since winning the Empire Breeders Classic Final at Tioga Downs Aug. 20, 2017. Heaven’s Gait emerged from his 1:49.2 victory in the $263,000 stakes with an injury that sent him to the sidelines.
“He didn’t come out of that race too great,” DeVita said. “He was a little sore for a few days and we took a few X-rays and saw that he broke his P1 (first Phalanx). We just stopped with him, obviously and gave him the rest of the year off to heal.”
By Rock N Roll Heaven out of the Somebeachsomewhere mare Booya Beach, Heaven’s Gait is homebred for John Cummins. The horse stood out to DeVita from day one.
“When he first came into the farm, he just looked like a big ball of muscle. He looked like he was going to be a nice athlete,” DeVita said. “He did everything right from the start and as we started going faster miles, he just did it so easily and seemed to enjoy it so much. He never gave us any problems and he just had a special look about him, the way he carries himself. He’s a very intelligent horse.”
Heaven’s Gait made just five starts at 2, winning a pair of overnights at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono. At 3, he won two legs of the New York Sire Stakes and the $75,000 Hempt Consolation. He crossed the wire first in the last five starts of his sophomore campaign, culminating with the Empire Breeders Classic.
“He was a homebred for us, so we really worked with him from the ground up,” DeVita said. “To win a big race like that, it was quite a thrill and such an honor. I was just proud to be part of the team and John has been so hands-on with him. John loves his horses, so it was really special to win that race. It was very rewarding, the road to get there.”
DeVita took Heaven’s Gait’s injury in stride and the support of Cummins, a veterinarian based in Lexington, proved invaluable.
“It’s part of the game, so you can only play the card you’re dealt. Dr. Cummins is a very knowledgeable veterinarian and he told us what we needed to do. He was on board in helping us any way he could,” DeVita said. “We followed his advice and he said, ‘if you do the right thing, he should come back no problem,’ and he did.
“We’re very careful with him. John doesn’t put a lot of pressure on us; he wants the right thing done by his horse and we respect that,” DeVita continued. “That makes it so much easier when the owner wants the best thing done with their horse and you don’t have the pressure to bring them back too early or do something that you don’t feel comfortable doing. We just took our time with him and he let us know when he was ready to come back.”
Heaven’s Gait qualified five times between Aug. 22, 2018 and Dec. 1, 2018, but never started in a pari-mutuel race. He trialed again Oct. 9 at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono in 1:55 before posting a final qualifier one week later in 1:54.2.
Heaven’s Gait finished second in his return to the races at Saratoga Nov. 2. After his comeback win, he started from post eight in Saratoga’s Open Handicap but found himself at a 12-1/2-length disadvantage through a :57.1 half. In his last start at Yonkers Nov. 23, Heaven’s Gait finished sixth in the $35,000 Preferred Handicap.
“His last start at Saratoga, they nearly went a second quarter in :31 and he was sitting last. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re that far out of it, especially at a track like Saratoga, you’re hoping to finish fifth at that point,” DeVita said. “We had the rail last week and just our first start at Yonkers tried to get around there safely. He did and he finished strong. Hopefully, we get away a little closer this week.”
Heaven’s Gait will continue his comeback in the $42,000 Open Handicap Pace Saturday night (Dec. 7). George Brennan, who leads Jason Bartlett in the driver standings 411 to 407, will drive the stallion from post one. The pair is 6-1 on the morning line.
Last week’s Open Handicap winner Mac’s Jackpot will start from post six as he seeks four straight wins. Jack’s Legend was assigned post eight off a pair of impressive victories in the Open Handicap and Preferred Handicap in his last two starts Nov. 16 and 23, respectively.
The Real One and Saying Grace, who finished second and third to Mac’s Jackpot last week, drew posts seven and two, respectively. The Wall, who was handicapped by post seven last week, drew post five Saturday night. Raukapuka Ruler and Sunfire Blue Chip complete the lineup and enter off wins for $27,000 Nov. 23.
“He’s in against tough horses, but we plan to race him against the best horses,” DeVita said. “I think he can go with them no problem. He was one of the best 3-year-olds in 2017 in New York and he raced against good horses then and I’m sure he’ll be able to compete with them.
“He’s shown that he can win on the lead, he can win from off the pace, he can fly home. He’s great off a helmet. I really have no concern there,” DeVita continued. “Yonkers is a good track to race off the pace and there’s really no pressure on George to put him on the lead by no means. He is in against those tough horses and hopefully, he can work out a trip and hopefully it works out for us.”
Regardless of the outcome Saturday night, DeVita still sees the same spark in Heaven’s Gait that made him stand out as a yearling.
“He loves to work, very classy horse, professional. He never gave us a problem. He’s still a stallion and he’s a perfect gentleman. You can walk a mare right past him. He’s a pleasure to work with. You know a special horse when you’re around them. They act different, they carry themselves differently, they know they’re special.”
Yonkers Raceway features live harness racing Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights through December 17. First post time is 6:50 p.m.