08/05/2004 11:00PM

Finally healthy, Bravo has big Haskell shot

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Continued good health tops jockey Joe Bravo's wish list.

A win in the $1 million Haskell Invitational with Lion Heart on Sunday at Monmouth Park runs a close second.

Bravo is riding in fine form this season at Monmouth. He is again leading the standings in a bid for a 10th title at the track he calls home.

And Bravo finally gets to ride a favorite in the Haskell.

This could be a season to remember for Bravo, who was born in nearby Long Branch. It all starts with a body that has healed after three injury-filled years.

"Jersey Joe" broke a leg in a Monmouth spill and missed the last month of the 2001 season. He suffered a broken wrist eight days into the 2002 meet.

Bravo got through the 2003 Monmouth meet intact, only to fracture a vertebra on opening night at The Meadowlands Racetrack.

"Physically, I feel like I'm 21 again," said Bravo, who turns 33 on Sept. 10. "It's nice to be free of pain. The last two years, even when I was riding, I was hurting. Everything is going great but the number one thing is doing what I love without pain."

Bravo has ridden in five Haskells and finished second three times: Storm Tower (1993), Meadow Flight (1994), and Dr. Caton (1996).

"All three seconds were situations where I wasn't supposed to win the race and I nearly stole the whole thing," said Bravo.

The Haskell that Bravo remembers best was the 1996 edition where Skip Away, the 3-5 favorite, was all-out to beat Dr. Caton by one length.

Bravo had added motivation that year. He worked Skip Away many times for trainer Sonny Hine but never got an opportunity to ride the gray colt.

"I did all the morning work but Sonny Hine never gave me a chance to sit on [Skip Away's] back," said Bravo. "It always ate me up."

Bravo almost had his revenge in the Haskell.

"Dr. Caton was a nice horse," said Bravo. "A quality horse but he was no Skip Away. But at the sixteenth pole, they were all thinking Skip Away was beat. I've got to give it to Skip Away. He was an iron horse."

This time, Bravo rides a horse the rest of the field must respect. Bravo has forged a strong relationship with Patrick Biancone, Lion Heart's trainer.

When Lion Heart made his first start since the Preakness in Monmouth's Long Branch Stakes, Bravo replaced Mike Smith as the colt's rider.

"Everybody knows that Monmouth Park is the garden of Joe Bravo," said Biancone. "I'll keep the gardener in his own garden."

Iwinski seeks first Grade 1 win

Trainer Allen Iwinski has liked My Snookie's Boy for a while - that's why he claimed him for $50,000 on behalf of the Preferred Pals Stable in April. But even Iwinski was surprised that My Snookie's Boy gave prohibitive favorite Lion Heart fits in the stretch before dropping a close decision in the Long Branch Stakes.

"He raced beyond our expectations in that particular race, he definitely did," said Iwinski, who will saddle My Snookie's Boy for Sunday's Haskell with the hopes that the Long Branch effort was a sign of better things to come. He came up a head short in that one but My Snookie's Boy did earn a career-high Beyer of 102 in the process, proving that his previous effort, a 7 1/2-length score against optional claimers, was no fluke.

"Joe Bravo rode him that day," said Iwinski, "and he must have opened up 12 lengths from the middle of the turn to the eighth pole. Actually, the last eighth of a mile he was kind of letting him gallop out. He was looking back, he was so far in front."

Bravo, of course, got off My Snookie's Boy to ride Lion Heart in the Long Branch. According to Iwinski, however, Bravo knew going into the race that he would have his hands full with his former mount

"Joe kept telling us, 'Look, Lion Heart is a good horse, but the only horse I'm worried about is your horse,' " said Iwinski. "Since he got on both of them, I guess he knew what he was talking about."

Iwinski, 52, has won more than 1,500 races but has never won a Grade 1 event. Recently, he announced that he intends to liquidate his stable and take a break from training in order to devote his time to recovering from Hepatitis C. That may well mean that Sunday is his last chance to win a race of this caliber.

"I'm looking forward to this opportunity," he said. "It would be something special. I'm just happy that our horse is coming into the race on top of his game."

- additional reporting by Kenny Peck