07/14/2004 11:00PM

Lion Heart all set up


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Lion Heart earned widespread admiration with his gutsy pacesetting efforts in the Kentucky Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes.

Admiration can never substitute for victory.

Lion Heart, winless in four starts this year, should finally break through Saturday in the Grade 3, $100,000 Long Branch Breeders' Cup Stakes at Monmouth Park. The Long Branch is Monmouth's traditional prep for the $1 million Haskell Invitational, to be run on Aug. 8.

Lion Heart will be a very short price in his first start since finishing fourth in the Preakness.

"This spot came to our eyes the day after the Preakness," said trainer Patrick Biancone. "We wanted to bring him back and give him a nice race over the track before the big day, the Haskell."

Lion Heart, who has three seconds in four4 starts this year, holds a huge class edge on the rest of the Long Branch field. He won the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity last December, while none of his rivals Saturday has won a graded stakes.

The class aspect runs even deeper. The horses who have beaten Lion Heart, a chestnut son of Tale of the Cat, rank among the 3-year-old division leaders: Smarty Jones, Imperialism, Rock Hard Ten, Eddington, and The Cliff's Edge.

Lion Heart should also love Monmouth's speed-favoring strip and the cutback in distance to 1 1/16 miles after the longer routes of the Triple Crown.

"He's doing great," said Biancone. "We're very happy with him. Everything is right on schedule. Now we just have to let him run."

The Long Branch kicks off the "second season" for Lion Heart, one that Biancone hopes culminates with a victory in the Grade 1, $1 million Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 28.

Lion Heart will have a new jockey in the Long Branch. Joe Bravo, Monmouth's leading rider, will be aboard for the first time.

Biancone opted to use Bravo instead of importing Mike Smith. Biancone and Bravo have already combined for a stakes win this meet with Pomeroy in the Grade 3 Jersey Shore Breeders' Cup Stakes June 26.

"We decided to leave the gardener in his garden," said Biancone of the decision. "When I trained horses for Frank Stronach in California, Bravo was one of the first people to give me a hand. He's a very talented rider. If he can ride Pomeroy, he can ride Lion Heart."

Biancone was noncommittal as to riders for Lion Heart in the future.

Royal Assault should be the second choice in the Long Branch. Trained by Nick Zito, he won the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard and finished third to stablemate Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes.

Chuckie Lopez will ride.

Completing the field are Cherokee Spook, Choose, Ecclesiastic, Gadace's Khamseh, My Snookie's Boy, and Zakocity.