07/14/2004 12:00AM

Lion Heart gets Bravo for Long Branch


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Joe Bravo will have the mount when Lion Heart makes his first start since the Preakness in the Grade 3, $100,000 Long Branch Stakes on Saturday at Monmouth Park.

The Long Branch is Monmouth's traditional prep for 3-year-olds leading to the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational Aug. 8.

Bravo has become trainer Patrick Biancone's main rider at Monmouth. They teamed up earlier this meet to win the Grade 3 Jersey Shore Breeders' Cup Stakes with Pomeroy.

This will be the first time Bravo rides Lion Heart, the runner-up to Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby and winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity last December. Mike Smith has ridden Lion Heart in six of his seven career starts.

"We only have a commitment for this race," said Danny Mellul, Bravo's agent. "We hope to talk to Mr. Biancone and the owners about the Haskell after the race."

A Tale of the Cat colt, Lion Heart has not run since a fourth-place finish in the Preakness. Lion Heart has worked steadily at Saratoga for his return and had his final drill Sunday - five furlongs in 1:01.80.

"We were really pleased with the work," said Biancone. "Everything looks fine for Saturday."

Lion Heart will ship to Monmouth early Saturday morning.

Lion Heart should love Monmouth. His front-running style is ideal for the traditionally speed-favoring strip. He will be a very short price in this field.

Royal Assault, one of trainer Nick Zito's stakes-winning colts this season, figures to be the second choice.

A Kris S. colt, Royal Assault won the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness Day and ran third behind stablemate Birdstone and Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes. Eibar Coa will ride.

Other likely starters include Ecclesiastic, Gadace's Khamseh, My Snookie's Boy, and Zakocity. Golden Gator and Choose were still on the fence Wednesday morning.

"We're keeping our options open," said Tim Kelly, Golden Gator's trainer. "On the plus side, it looks like a small field and he'll get in light. And he's doing super right now."

Golden Gator won his maiden at first asking last November at The Meadowlands, and has two seconds and two thirds in four starts this year. He tried two turns for the first time in his latest and finished second in the one-mile allowance.

"He got off bad in that race and still finished second," Kelly said. "I thought it was a super race."

Choose ran poorly last time, also in an allowance race, but seems to have bounced back nicely from that race, his lone loss in three career outings. He worked four furlongs in 50 seconds in the mud Tuesday and had an easy gallop over the wet track Wednesday.

"If we have any second thoughts, it's not fair to him to enter," said trainer John Forbes. "He really has to convince us that the thing to do is run."

Artax Dancer takes next step

A brief rest worked wonders for Artax Dancer.

She returned from a vacation of almost three months to win her maiden with a front-running victory on June 27. She takes the next step Friday, facing winners in the $39,000 allowance feature at six furlongs for fillies and mares.

"When we brought her back, she trained a lot more aggressively," said trainer Tim Hills. "She was not so sour and argumentative. Giving horses time works, especially if you do it before they get injured or sick."

The break helped unleash the potential that Hills always saw in the 3-year-old filly.

Artax Dancer will have a new rider in Stewart Elliott. Jose Velez Jr., who rode her in the maiden victory, opted off for Surrey Down.