Smarty Jones' retirement left the door open for a new 3-year-old division leader and Lion Heart busted through, winning the $1 million Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I) in fine fashion at Monmouth Park Sunday.
With Joe Bravo aboard, Lion Heart, carrying top weight of 121 pounds, went directly to the lead and they never looked back. He enjoyed a 2 1/2-length advantage at the quarter pole and held on gamely as My Snookie's Boy slowly cut into the lead through the stretch. Lion Heart, who went over the $1 million in career earnings with the $600,000 winning purse, was in front by just over a length at the end.
"What a nice horse," enthused Bravo, who rode Lion Heart for the second time, both victories. "It was probably one of the easiest wins of my career. He's a classy horse. And what classy horses do is make it look easy."
Pies Prospect rallied mildly to finish third as 4-5 favorite Rock Hard Ten, who had to work hard to keep the pressure on Lion Heart, faded badly to finish sixth. The final time was 1:48 4/5 for the 1 1/8-mile test.
Fractions were reasonable – :23, :46 4/5 and 1:10 2/5 – and made it difficult for the closers on a day that Lion Heart was clearly at his best.
Lion Heart defeated My Snookie's Boy by only a head at Monmouth in the July 17 Long Branch Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. III) at 1 1/6 miles, which winning trainer Patrick Biancone said was a prep for the Haskell. Lion Heart spotted My Snookie's Boy five pounds Sunday.
Biancone said Lion Heart would go to the $1 million Travers (gr. I) over 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga Aug. 28, where the son of Tale of the Cat-Satin Sunrise (Mr. Leader) would likely face Sunday's dominating Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner Purge.
"This horse is unbelievable," Biancone said. "I've never had a horse like this. He's so intelligent. He does whatever we ask."
Lion Heart lost to Smarty Jones in both the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), where he was second, and in the Preakness (gr. I), when he finished fourth, the only out-of-the-money performance of his nine-race career. Biancone gave his chestnut colt a good rest after that, returning in the Long Branch.
It was a special victory for Bravo, who has nine titles at Monmouth but had never before captured the track's premier race.
``It was such a great feeling,'' said Bravo.
Lion Heart has won $1,380,800 for owners Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, who paid $1.4 million for him at Fasig-Tipton in February 2003. Lion Heart won the Hollywood Prevue (gr. III) and the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) at 2, but was winless in 2004 before taking the Long Branch at 3-10 odds.
Sent off as the 9-5 second choice, he paid $5.80, $4.40 and $3.80. My Snookie's Boy returned $12.80 and $7.60 and completed an $81.40 exacta. Pies Prospect, ridden by C.C. Lopez, was $10.40 to show.