08/05/2004 11:00PM

Two who would be king vie in Haskell

Rock Hard Ten trains at Monmouth under Corey Black.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - The recent retirement of Smarty Jones leaves a major void within the 3-year-old division.

With Smarty Jones, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner headed off to stud duty, the remaining stakes within the division offer a window of opportunity for a new leader to emerge.

The Grade 1, $1 million Sunday afternoon at Monmouth Park could propel Lion Heart or Rock Hard Ten up the divisional ladder.

The two colts are the headliners in the 1 1/8-mile centerpiece event of the Monmouth season.

Both are using this race as an important step on the road to the Grade 1 Travers on Aug. 28 at Saratoga and ultimately, the Breeders' Cup.

While it is a longshot that someone will dethrone Smarty Jones, it may be possible. A colt would have to run the table, and the Haskell is a place to start.

"I think, you know, we have to see, but if we let them play them out, the Haskell, the Travers, and the Breeders' Cup, I think you've got a shot, you know?" said Patrick Biancone, Lion Heart's trainer.

Both Lion Heart, the 121-pound starting highweight, and Rock Hard Ten, at 120, have questions to answer in the Haskell.

Lion Heart had a sensational 2-year-old campaign, winning all three starts, including a season-ending victory in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity at Hollywood Park.

Victory has been more elusive at 3.

The early speed that carried him to victory as a juvenile is still there. He just wasn't able to hang on and win early in the year. He set the pace in the Blue Grass Stakes and Kentucky Derby but gamely settled for second in both.

After he tired and finished fourth in the Preakness, Biancone gave Lion Heart a rest.

Lion Heart returned to action in Monmouth's Grade 3 Long Branch Breeders' Cup on July 17 and got his first win of the year. The narrow victory over unheralded My Snookie's Boy, however, raised more questions as the anticipated romp turned into a struggle.

Both Biancone and jockey Joe Bravo predict Lion Heart will move forward off the Long Branch.

"Last time, My Snookie's Boy really improved and ran the race of his life," said Bravo. "My horse just ran a race. Nothing special. He was out there for a nice tightener. That's what it was."

Lion Heart will have to be sharper to handle the maturing Rock Hard Ten. A massive dark bay colt, Rock Hard Ten scored his first stakes win in the Grade 2 Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 10.

The question surrounding Rock Hard Ten centers on maturity. The raw ability has always been there but was undermined by the colt's rambunctious nature. The Haskell offers a platform to prove the unruly boy is ready to become a man.

"It looks like he's starting to mature and he is still improving," said Rock Hard Ten's trainer, Jason Orman.

Rock Hard Ten took a major step forward in the Swaps, running a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 109.

His previous best Beyer figure was a 103 in the Santa Anita Derby, where he finished second by a head but was disqualified and placed third.

The disqualification cost him the graded stakes earnings needed to make the Kentucky Derby. He joined the Triple Crown for the Preakness, where he finished second, 11 1/2 lengths behind Smarty Jones. In the Belmont Stakes, he was done after a mile and finished fifth.

Corey Nakatani, who was aboard for the Swaps, has the return call in the Haskell.

While most handicappers expect Lion Heart and Rock Hard Ten to settle this one in the stretch, the early pace could be heated.

Lion Heart, Rock Hard Ten, My Snookie's Boy, Pollard's Vision, Wimplestiltskin, Pies Prospect, and Tap Day all prefer to run on or very close to the pace. Only Swingforthefences and Royal Assault are confirmed closers.

The Haskell status of Pollard's Vision and Swingforthefences was uncertain, as both colts were also cross-entered in other stakes over the weekend. Pollard's Vision was expected to run in the West Virginia Derby on Saturday while Swingforthefences was also entered in Sunday's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga

The field

Haskell Stakes
Purse: $1,000,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1My Snookie's BoyS. Elliott11610-1
2Pies ProspectC. Lopez11612-1
3Royal AssaultP. Day1178-1
4Lion HeartJ. Bravo1218-5
5Rock Hard TenC. Nakatani1202-1
6WimplestiltskinE. Coa11630-1
7Tap DayJ. Velez Jr.11630-1
8Pollard's VisionE. Coa1188-1
9SwingforthefencesS. Bridgmohan1176-1

* Odds by Art Gropper
* Television: Sunday, ESPN2, 6-7 p.m. Eastern