03/04/2004 1:00AM

To last, Lion Heart must ration speed

Lion Heart, exercising last month, will concede weight to his nine opponents when he makes his 3-year-old debut in the one-mile San Rafael Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Lion Heart has proven he can run fast, and he has proven he can run far. But can he run fast and run far at the same time? That will be his assignment in Saturday's $200,000 at Santa Anita, because with the speedy Hosco drawn just inside of him, Lion Heart must show that he can ration his speed in the face of an equally fast pace rival.

Unlike Lion Heart, Hosco never has been around two turns, and is not on anyone's short list of top Kentucky Derby contenders. But his presence adds an element of intrigue to the one-mile San Rafael, which kicks off Lion Heart's drive to the May 1 Derby.

Lion Heart will be favored, and deservedly so, in the Grade 2 race. He won all three of his starts last year, including the Hollywood Futurity, and has trained strongly for his 3-year-old debut.

"We will see how he has matured from 2 to 3. So far, all the signs are good," said his trainer, Patrick Biancone.

The San Rafael drew a field of 12. A maximum of 10 can go a mile at Santa Anita, so two were placed on the also-eligible list. For the second straight Saturday, trainer Richard Mandella had the bad luck of the draw in a stakes race for 3-year-olds. His colt Spellbinder landed on the also-eligible list, and needs a scratch to get in. Mandella was in a similar spot last Saturday with Minister Eric, who failed to get into the Baldwin Stakes.

Lion Heart carries top weight of 121 pounds, and will concede from three to six pounds to his rivals. Biancone cited the weight as a mild concern among several. "Saturday is not a walkover," he said. "He has to give weight. He's running against very fit horses."

Lion Heart appears fit. He finished his training with a sharp half-mile move on Wednesday morning, completing a series of drills in which he has been asked to ration his speed. The results of that endeavor will be revealed Saturday.

"Except for a few days of rain, it's gone as planned," Biancone said. "Last week we had to defer a workout by two days, and this week we had to defer a workout by one day, but other than that, it's gone as planned."

Hosco won the first three starts of his career, and then finished second to the late-running Imperialism in the San Vicente. He will be hounded by Lion Heart from the outside, and faces pace pressure from Hasslefree from the inside.

Imperialism's victory in the San Vicente marked his first start since being bought in Florida and turned over to trainer Kristin Mulhall. He got a setup in the San Vicente, but he should get a similar hot pace in the San Rafael. The question is whether he will have the same closing punch going long as sprinting.

Lucky Pulpit was a sharp second to St Averil in the Santa Catalina in January. The third-place finisher in that race, Master David, came back to take the Sham Stakes.

Castledale won the Generous Stakes in his lone start in this country after being imported from Ireland. This will be his first start on dirt.

Quintons Gold Rush makes his stakes debut. He was a stylish winner against maidens in his second start on Jan. 18. He landed post 10.

"I just thank God I got in," said Mike Mitchell, who trains Quintons Gold Rush. "I don't mind being out there, because there's so much speed to the inside. I think he's rateable. Normally you'd give the edge to a horse with seasoning, but this is a very smart colt."

Spellbinder has won a maiden race and a first-level allowance after losing his first four starts. He is unbeaten around two turns at Santa Anita.

The field

San Rafael Stakes

Purse: $200,000; 1 mile; Grade 2

1WimplestiltskinJ. Valdivia Jr.11530-1
2HasslefreeA. Solis11530-1
3ImperialismV. Espinoza1188-1
4Lucky PulpitK. Desormeaux1159-2
5CastledaleD. Flores11810-1
6HoscoT. Baze11812-1
7Lion HeartM. Smith1217-5
8ConsecrateJ. Santiago11512-1
9ToastedG. Stevens11520-1
10Quintons Gold RushC. Nakatani1157-2
11Spellbinder *A. Solis1158-1
12Lipan *M. Pedroza11530-1

* Blinkers On: Consecrate; * - also eligible

* Odds by Michael Hammersly