Haskell contender Lion Heart, winning the Long Branch Stakes.

Haskell contender Lion Heart, winning the Long Branch Stakes.

Equi-Photo/Bill Denver

Lion Heart, Rock Hard Ten Set for Haskell

The second season begins in earnest for the 3-year-olds the weekend of Aug. 7-8, with the runnings of the Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I), Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II), and West Virginia Derby (gr. III). If there is even the slimmest chance of dethroning Smarty Jones for the title, someone is going to have to run the table. One who is in a position to accomplish that is Lion Heart.

But the speedy son of Tale of the Cat has gone down to defeat twice at the hands of Smarty Jones, and will have to win the $1-million Haskell Aug. 8, the Travers Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 28, and Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) Oct. 30 to even be considered for an Eclipse Award. One of those he'll face in the Haskell is Rock Hard Ten, who is in pretty much the same situation.

"If he were to win all three races, he might have a shot at it," Lion Heart's trainer Patrick Biancone said Aug. 3 on a national teleconference. "Athletes develop and change. Some can keep going and some cannot. Smarty Jones was the best horse in the spring. He may not have been the best horse of the summer, but we'll never know. When Michael Jordan stopped playing basketball, the sport still went on."

Lion Heart returned to the races in the Long Branch Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth Park following a rushed spring campaign in which he was narrowly beaten in the San Rafael (gr. II) and Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) before finishing second to Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and fourth in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Surprisingly, he had to fight to the wire to eke out a victory in the Long Branch over My Snookie's Boy, an impressive allowance winner at Monmouth.

"I took a bit of a gamble training him up to that race," Biancone said. "I used the race as a prep and worked him only four times. If I brought him up to the Long Branch dead-fit, I knew I might go down in the Haskell. He won by a head, so my plan looked good. If he would have lost by a head I would have looked stupid. This happens when you use races as a prep. He turned in a grade III performance in a grade III race, and we expect him to turn in a grade I performance in a grade I race. He has put on 30 pounds since the Long Branch and I'm confident he will improve dramatically in the Haskell."

Although Mike Smith was Lion Heart's regular rider throughout his career, Biancone is sticking with local leading rider Joe Bravo, who was aboard Lion Heart in the Long Branch. "Monmouth Park is Joe's garden, and I want to use a gardener in a garden," Biancone said.

Lion Heart's main threat in the Haskell will be the physically imposing Rock Hard Ten, who is coming off an impressive score in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II) at Hollywood Park, and who may be ready to take charge of the 3-year-old division if he turns in another big effort.

"He galloped this morning," trainer Jason Orman said. "Yesterday, we took him to the gate and he was perfect, so everything is set. He leaves here (the morning of Aug. 4) and should be at Monmouth around 1:30 p.m. with his groom. I'm flying out (the evening of Aug. 4) and land at Newark at 5:45 in the morning (Aug. 5). I'll be at the track after that."

Nick Zito will send out the pair of Royal Assault, winner of the Sir Barton Stakes and third in the Belmont (gr. I) and Long Branch, and Pies Prospect, winner of a small stakes at Delaware Park before finishing third to Pollard's Vision in the Leonard Richards Stakes (gr. III). The son of Miswaki has an explosive move on the turn and could be a longshot to keep an eye on. Chuck Lopez will be aboard Pies Prospect, while Pat Day rides Royal Assault. Both horses will van to Monmouth from Belmont Park the morning of the race.

Long Branch runner-up My Snookie's Boy worked a half in :49 on Aug. 3, and once again should be a pace factor in the race.

Scheduled to arrive on the same plane as Rock Hard Ten is Wimplestiltskin, second in the Laz Barrera Stakes (gr. II), and the San Pedro, and Harry Henson. He is trained by Marcelo Polanco.

Tap Day is a possible starter. The Haskell will be run as the 13th of 14 races, with a post of 6:20 p.m. EDT. The nine-furlong race will be televised live on ESPN2 from 6-7 p.m.