03/03/2004 12:00AM

Lion Heart back in picture

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Lion Heart works at Santa Anita on Feb. 25. He has not raced since winning the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 20.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Only minutes after Lion Heart won the Hollywood Futurity, trainer Patrick Biancone said the colt would be rested until the San Rafael Stakes, then would move on to the Santa Anita Derby before the Kentucky Derby.

The 2 1/2 months since the Hollywood Futurity have flown past. Most top 3-year-olds have already raced this year, so Lion Heart largely has been out of sight, and out of mind. But now it's time to get down to serious business.

How serious? Well, Lion Heart's co-owner, Michael Tabor, and his top advisor, Demi O'Byrne, were with Biancone Wednesday morning at Santa Anita to watch Lion Heart's final workout for Saturday's San Rafael. Tabor had been at a 2-year-old-in-training sale the previous day, and is sticking around for the San Rafael. Besides the action on the track, he also likes the action at the windows, so Wednesday's pick-six carryover of more than $1.4 million offered a tempting diversion.

"We'll be trying," Tabor said.

Tabor already has won the Derby, in 1995 with Thunder Gulch. "Once you taste it, the success of that race, you want to experience it again," he said. "There's no race I want to win more than the Kentucky Derby or the Epsom Derby."

Lion Heart is his best chance for the Kentucky Derby this year. Tabor has nothing else of significance in the country at this point. He said he will not send anything from Europe, even though he has tried that tack in years past, such as with Johannesburg in 2002. A lot is riding on Lion Heart. Is he up to it?

"I don't think anybody knows at this stage if their horse can go a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May," Biancone said. "I hope he can do it, but I'm not going to guarantee it today."

Lion Heart has done nothing wrong so far. He won all three of his starts last year - a maiden race at Santa Anita on Oct. 24, the Hollywood Prevue on Nov. 15, and the futurity on Dec. 20. The futurity, at 1 1/16 miles, marked Lion Heart's first try around two turns.

He is shortening up to a mile for the San Rafael, and his sharp early speed makes him a formidable target. Distances beyond that, however, remain in question for this chestnut son of Tale of the Cat. He is a muscular colt, powerfully built through the chest and hindquarters. He stands a shade over 15.3 hands, and does not look like a classic, long-distance horse.

"He's developed very much physically," Biancone said when asked how Lion Heart had progressed in recent months. "He has more scope. He's wider. He's not very big. He's very balanced. And he's a lovely horse to be around. He's a bit bossy, but we like him like that.

"He loves to gallop," the trainer said. "The difference from 2 to 3 is that when he was a 2-year-old, he was patchy. He would have one really good work, and one average work. This year, he's more consistent. Mentally, he's the man."

Lion Heart's best weapon is his speed, which has not been matched by any of his rivals so far.

That speed is what first attracted Tabor, O'Byrne, Biancone, and co-owner Derrick Smith to Lion Heart at a 2-year-old-in-training sale last February. Tabor and Smith had to spend $1.4 million at auction to acquire him.

"He was fast, really fast," Biancone said. "Some said he had too much speed, but I've never met a horse with too much speed."

Lion Heart kept that speed in check Wednesday morning. He breezed a half-mile in 47 seconds while appearing to have much in reserve.

"I just wanted him to stretch his legs today," Biancone said. "I didn't want him too fresh for the race."

Lion Heart walked back placidly after the work, as if it were nothing.

"He worked like a lion, came back like a lamb," Biancone remarked as Lion Heart left the track.

* The $200,000 San Rafael is also expected to attract such well-regarded 3-year-olds as Lucky Pulpit, Quintons Gold Rush, and Spellbinder.

* The weekend's other major race is Sunday's $600,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. The Neil Howard-trained duo of Breakaway and Gradepoint is scheduled to face Fire Slam and California invaders Borrego and Wimbledon.

* Action This Day, preparing for the San Felipe Stakes on March 14, made trainer Richard Mandella giddy by working seven furlongs in 1:24.40 on Wednesday morning. "The wheels are off now," he said.

Action This Day, last year's champion 2-year-old colt and the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, worked about one hour after Halfbridled turned in a sensational mile workout for Mandella. "This was a good morning," he said. "I feel like I won two races."

* Mike Bell, the trainer of Capac, said he could find nothing wrong with his colt after his disappointing loss in Saturday's Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel.

"I was hoping this would be the step forward he needed to take," said Bell, who said Capac would probably run next in an allowance race at Keeneland next month. As for the Derby chase, Bell said, "It was fun while it lasted."

* Pat Day has picked up the mount on Limehouse for the March 14 Tampa Bay Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher said.