08/05/2004 12:00AM

If Haskell pace is fast, beware Royal Assault


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Lion Heart and My Snookie's Boy were the story in the Long Branch Stakes, the traditional local prep race for the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, as they engaged in a stretchlong duel before Lion Heart narrowly prevailed. But what about the other horse who comes out of that race?

Royal Assault was third in the Belmont Stakes two starts back and then finished third in the Long Branch, and while he was no real threat to the top two finishers either time, he has improved on the Beyer scale in each of his last three starts. Pat Day, who rode him in the Belmont as well as to victory in the Sir Barton Stakes earlier this year, will be back aboard and is hoping Royal Assault can take another step forward.

"Obviously, he doesn't have the speed that some of the other horses in the race have, but we're hopeful that a decent pace will set up in front of us and give his closing style a chance," he said. "We should be able to secure the position of our choice and go from there."

Day downplayed the importance of Royal Assault, who drew post 3, having had a race over the track.

"It's not a necessity, but at least we know he'll handle it," said Day.

Orman explains his choice

Jason Orman spent Thursday morning getting oriented on his first visit to Monmouth.

While Rock Hard Ten arrived Wednesday evening, his trainer did not hit the Jersey Shore until Thursday morning.

Orman took the red-eye from San Diego and reported right to Monmouth.

Orman had a number of options for Rock Hard Ten, winner of the Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes at Hollywood Park. He settled on the Haskell primarily because of its Grade 1 status.

"It was either here or the Jim Dandy at Saratoga," said Orman. "It looked like it could be a shorter field here and it is a Grade 1."

Rock Hard Ten had a quiet morning. He walked the shed row and enjoyed a bath on a cool morning marked by occasional sprinkles.

Rock Hard Ten was scheduled to gallop over the track for the first time Friday morning.

Orman, while never having visited Monmouth, has been close by on several occasions.

"I've been down the Jersey Shore a couple of times," said Orman. "When I was living in Ottawa we used to drive down to Atlantic City."

This could be the first stop on an eastern swing. Orman will consider the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 28 if Rock Hard Ten runs well and comes out of the race in good shape.

Violette keeps his horse fresh

Swingforthefences passed the Triple Crown races after running fourth in the Wood Memorial, but trainer Rick Violette has been rewarded for his patience, as the colt has retained his form throughout the summer. He was second behind Purge in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes back in May and, in his latest, he won the $250,000 Iowa Derby.

"It's a really hard road to follow, doing the preps, doing the Triple Crown races itself," he said. "There's no question if you avoid them, you might have a fresher horse for the summer, and maybe even the fall."

Swingforthefences, who may also be entered in Sunday's Jim Dandy, drew post 9 for the Haskell. Shaun Bridgmohan, who has been aboard for each of the colt's last three starts, is named to ride.

Can Lopez duplicate father's feat?

Pies Prospect comes off a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Leonard Richards Stakes at Delaware Park and is listed at 15-1 on the morning line, but he got a vote of confidence from his jockey, Chuck Lopez, who was involved in one of the more humorous exchanges at Thursday's press luncheon with track announcer and moderator Larry Collmus:

Lopez: "My agent assures me he's faster than any of them in the race, so . . ."

Collmus: "And you believe him?"

Lopez will try to follow in his father's footsteps when he rides longshot Pie's Prospect for trainer Nick Zito.

Carlos Lopez won the race, then known as the Monmouth Invitational, aboard Thanks to Tony in 1980 at 23-1.

"Well, it would be really, really great," said Lopez. "Obviously, the best race of my career. I never won a Grade 1. It would be really, really special to do it here in front of my home crowd and my family. The father and son thing would be really nice, as well."

Tap Day peaking at the right time

Tap Day is one of the Haskell longshots, at 20-1, despite scoring impressive wins in his last two outings.

The Grade 1 Haskell represents a step up in class for Tap Day, who ran in a claiming race two starts back.

Robby Rader, the assistant trainer for Mark Hennig, believes that 3-year-olds are sometimes victimized by timing.

"You'd like to have them all going good in March, April, and May," said Rader. "There is nothing to say that a horse can't get good this time of year. He's doing really well right now."

Jose Velez Jr., a rider with a history of bringing home stakes longshots, has the mount. He pulled off the upset with 37-1 shot Balto Star in last year's United Nations.

"It is great to win the big races," said Velez. "It's good for a rider, businesswise. The United Nations helped me a lot in my business. Winning the Haskell would help me more."

Megantic out of Oceanport

The Grade 3, $100,000 Oceanport Handicap, one of the Haskell Day supporting stakes, lost a major horse when Megantic suffered a tendon injury.

Trainer Norman Pointer said Megantic, 6, will be sidelined the rest of the year. The former claimer most recently ran fourth in the Grade 1 United Nations.

* The Haskell, which will be the 13th of 14 races on Sunday's card, will be televised live on ESPN2 from 6 to 7 p.m. Eastern, with post time set at 6:20. Post time for the first race is noon.

- additional reporting by Mike Farrell