07/17/2004 12:00AM

Lion Heart all out to get up

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Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Lion Heart (left), Joe Bravo up, gets his head in front of longshot My Snookie's Boy after a stretch duel to win the Long Branch Breeders' Cup.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Lion Heart, the overwhelming favorite, won the Grade 3, $100,000 , as expected, Saturday at Monmouth Park.

Few anticipated, though, that Lion Heart would be pushed so hard to secure his first victory in five races this season.

Lion Heart ($2.60), making his first start since finishing fourth in the Preakness, wound up locked in a fierce stretch battle with My Snookie's Boy, a former claimer.

They battled head and head through the lane, with the 12-1 My Snookie's Boy seemingly poised for the upset 100 yards from the wire.

Lion Heart, showing great determination despite losing a shoe early in the race, made a final push to get there by a head.

Trainer Patrick Biancone took a gamble and Lion Heart bailed him out. He worked the son of Tale of the Cat only four times since the Preakness.

"I'm very happy," said Biancone. "I gambled it would be enough. I didn't want him tip-top for this race. We have two big fights to come now, and I want him to improve."

Those battles are a pair of $1 million Grade 1 stakes: the Haskell at Monmouth on Aug. 8 and the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 28.

Joe Bravo, Monmouth's leading jockey, rode Lion Heart for the first time. They were wide on the first turn as Choose and My Snookie's Boy sprung into the early mix. Bravo roused Lion Heart on the final turn, hoping to settle the issue with a decisive move. Choose could not keep up, but My Snookie's Boy hung right with Lion Heart.

It was a career-best effort from My Snookie's Boy, a $50,000 claim by trainer Allen Iwinski in April at Gulfstream Park.

Stewart Elliott, who bested Lion Heart in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard Smarty Jones, almost got him again as he rode My Snookie's Boy for the first time.

"We were in front in the stretch and I knew I had horse left," said Elliott. "I thought we might be able to get there."

Lion Heart ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.51 over the fast track.

Royal Assault, third in the Belmont Stakes and trained by Nick Zito, rallied for the show spot, 5 1/2 lengths behind My Snookie's Boy.

Earlier, Gulch Approval ($10.80) ensured that Zito would have a winning day at Monmouth as he rallied to win the first of two divisions of the $60,000 Elkwood Stakes on the turf.

Gulch Approval, ridden by Chuckie Lopez, saved ground all the way and launched a strong inside run for his second consecutive victory since switching to the grass.

Spruce Run ($9.20) determinedly fought to the wire to win the other Elkwood division by a neck over Stormy Roman in 1:43.90.