With Smarty Jones no longer around to hound him, Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart stepped up to stake his claim as the top 3-year-old in racing, leading from the start and winning the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park yesterday in Oceanport, N.J.
The race set up as a confrontation between Lion Heart and the massive, dark brown Rock Hard Ten, but after pressing the fast pace early, Rock Hard Ten came undone on the far turn and staggered home sixth.
In the days leading up to the Haskell, trainer Patrick Biancone suggested Smarty Jones might not have sewn up the 3-year-old championship with his victories in the Derby, Preakness Stakes and Triple Crown near miss in the Belmont Stakes. He reiterated the claim in the winner's circle today.
"The spring is the spring and the summer is the summer," said Biancone, a top trainer in France now based in California. "I'm sure Smarty will be happy. He's on a good farm in Kentucky, but we've taken the flag back away from him."
Asked where Lion Heart would appear next, Biancone didn't hesitate. "The Travers next. The Breeders' Cup. Everything. Tonight, everything."
Lion Heart prepped for the Haskell with a hard-fought victory in a minor stakes race at Monmouth against an unknown horse named My Snookie's Boy, and when the field headed home in the stretch, the same two were in front, with Lion Heart winning the 11/8-mile race by a length in a time of 1 minute 48.95 seconds. Rock Hard Ten, the 4-5 favorite, was 151/2 lengths back.
Rock Hard Ten "wanted to push us, but I talked to Pat [Biancone] before the race, and we were hoping he would," said winning rider Joe Bravo, nine times the leading jockey at Monmouth Park, who scored his first Haskell victory. "We were just relaxed out there, and Rock Hard was pushing."
Lion Heart earned owners Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor a first prize of $600,000, increasing his career record to five wins in nine starts for $1,380,800.
Meantime, the 2007 Breeders' Cup will be held at Monmouth Park, racing officials and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority announced yesterday.
-- John Scheinman