06/13/2002 12:00AM

Back at the scene of much hard luck


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Crash Course was an unlucky horse at Monmouth last year. In four starts - all in stakes on the turf - he was always flying late, only to run out of distance before the wire. Crash Course finished third in each start.

But after the Monmouth meet ended, Crash Course, a 6-year-old gelding trained by Jimmy Croll, regained his winning ways. Since last summer, he has won the Grade 3 Cliff Hanger at The Meadowlands and the Grade 3 Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream Park. Crash Course seems to have grown better with age, and Saturday's Grade 3 Oceanport Handicap will be a true test of whether he can get the unlucky streak he experienced last summer behind him.

Crash Course will be the favorite in a field of nine racing 1 1/8 miles on turf. He will be making his first start of the 2002 meet and could be primed for his best summer yet at the Jersey Shore if he returns to the top form he displayed last winter.

Croll has just one concern. It's also the thing Crash Course's competitors are hoping makes him a vulnerable favorite. He has not raced since winning the Mac Diarmida on Jan. 20.

"I wish I had another week to work with him," Croll said, "but that's not how it works. I want to get him ready to run in the United Nations [July 6], and there's no other spot around."

The Oceanport should be a relatively paceless race with the defection of Key Lory, winner of the Grade 3 Red Bank in his last start. A horse looking to snatch the early lead and set slow fractions will be tough to beat. Crash Course is a late closer, as is 2001 Battlefield Stakes winner Ready to Roll and Sardaukar, runner-up in the Red Bank on May 25.

Spruce Run, trained by Linda Rice, will probably be in front out of the gate and could steal the race from that position. Spruce Run, a 4-year-old, rated in third in the Red Bank and ran in that position around the track. He won both the Restoration and Spend a Buck stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf last year by employing front-running tactics.

Rob's Spirit, trained by Bill Mott, won the Grade 3 Lexington and Grade 3 Saranac last year as a 3-year-old, but has not returned to the winner's circle since last September. He has shown a stalking style in previous races and could prevent Spruce Run from securing a lone lead.

One Eyed Joker, Cynics Beware, Szep, and Tempest Fugit complete the field. Runspastum and Sardaukar will run only if the race is shifted to the main track.

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