08/08/2004 11:00PM

It's on to Travers for Purge, Lion Heart

Purge, with John Velazquez up, wins Sunday's Jim Dandy with a 108 Beyer, the same figure Lion Heart earned in his Haskell victory.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Lion Heart and Purge found Smarty Jones an insurmountable foe the first half of the year. Now that Smarty Jones is out of the way, having been retired, his former rivals are on a collision course for the 3-year-old division's second-half leadership.

Although they faced Smarty Jones a collective five times this spring, Lion Heart and Purge never raced against one another. Purge lost twice to Smarty Jones in Arkansas early in the year, Lion Heart chased Smarty home in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and then Purge futilely took up the challenge in the Belmont Stakes.

Lion Heart and Purge stayed on separate paths Sunday, and that produced victories for Lion Heart in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth and Purge in the Jim Dandy Stakes here at Saratoga. They each earned Beyer Speed Figures of 108.

Which colt is better? That will be determined on Aug. 28, with a showdown in the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga, a race that will also include Belmont winner Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge, who finished second to Purge in the Jim Dandy.

Both Lion Heart and Purge came out of their races in good shape, according to their trainers. Patrick Biancone, who trains Lion Heart, and Todd Pletcher, who trains Purge, both said they thought their colts turned in the best races of their careers.

"All the work we've done with him, he can control his speed," Biancone said at his Saratoga barn Monday morning, where Lion Heart returned at 1 a.m. after a van ride from Monmouth. "Now he is starting to understand. We spend hours with him. He's changed. He's matured. We started out with him very late last year."

Biancone has a private barn just north of the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga. It is a solitary, peaceful place.

"Having a private center, we can take our time," Biancone said. "We have nothing else to do but take care of the horses."

Lion Heart was second in the Derby to Smarty Jones, the only time he has tried 1 1/4 miles, the Travers distance.

"The distance is no problem," Biancone said. "He's much better now than he was around the time of the Derby. He's a different horse."

Biancone said Joe Bravo, who rode Lion Heart in the Haskell, would ride Lion Heart again in the Travers.

Purge completed 1 1/8 miles in the Jim Dandy in 1:47.56, which was significantly faster than the 1:48.54 turned in by Roses in May in Saturday's Whitney Handicap.

"I thought it was as good a performance as any 3-year-old this year," Pletcher said. "The fractions were similar, but the final time was a full second faster than the Whitney 24 hours earlier."

Purge was far more relaxed in the paddock before the Jim Dandy than he was before the Belmont, and he rated in kind during the early part of the race. Pletcher had spent considerable time in the days leading up to the Jim Dandy trying to keep Purge under control.

"I don't know what happened at the Belmont," said Pletcher. "He's a high-energy horse, but not to where he doesn't behave, but at the Belmont he came unraveled. At the Belmont, we schooled him one time and left him alone. This past week, we schooled him. He did well. We schooled him again and again. We did it most of the days of the week, except the day before."

Jack Wolf, who with his wife Laurie is a co-owner of Purge, pulled up much worse than Purge. "I'm too old for this [stuff]," a weary Wolf said at the barn Monday morning after a celebratory night at neighboring Siro's Restaurant.

The Cliff's Edge was a distant second to Purge, marking his third straight loss since taking the Blue Grass Stakes. Shane Sellers, the jockey of The Cliff's Edge, visited trainer Nick Zito on Monday morning to lobby for keeping the mount, since, at this point, Jerry Bailey is without a mount.

"I made the decision this morning to leave Shane on," Zito said. "Purge raced in the clear and turned in an exceptionally fast time. There wasn't a speed duel. Cliff came with his run, but Purge was loose. It was similar to when he chased Medallist last time in the Dwyer. Cliff accelerated. He ran wild on the turn. If he can run like that in the big one, we should be OK."

Zito also trains Birdstone, who will make his first start since his upset victory in the Belmont in the Travers. Zito said two of his other trainees are possible for the Travers: Sir Shackleton, who won Saturday's West Virginia Derby with a Beyer figure of 106, and Royal Assault, who was fourth in the Haskell.

Other possible runners for the Travers include Suave, who finished second in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park; Haskell runner-up My Snookies Boy; and California-based Borrego.