06/13/2001 11:00PM

Gaviola towers over Matchmaker

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Monmouth Park has always been a summer spot for top horses en route to championship campaigns and careers. Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Vinery Matchmaker Handicap features a horse with that potential: Gaviola.

Gaviola, a 4-year-old daughter of Cozzene, is entered as the 121-pound highweight and heavy favorite in the Matchmaker, Monmouth's premier race for fillies and mares on the turf. The race, run at 1 1/8 miles, brings the owners of the first three finishers future stallion services. This year's stallions are Runaway Groom, Lord Carson, and Good and Tough.

Gaviola, trained by Billy Turner, displayed her turf dominance last year, winning six consecutive races on the grass, capped off by her first Grade 1 victory in the $250,000 Garden City Breeders' Cup Handicap at Belmont on Sept. 10. In her two races as a 4-year-old, she has a win and place. She won her last race, the Grade 3 Beaugay Handicap May 6 at Aqueduct.

Turner usually sends a handful of stakes horses to Monmouth every summer. With Gaviola, owned by Twilite Farms, he has a filly with a legitimate opportunity to become the top female turf runner in the East, partly because of last weekend's injury to defending female turf champion Perfect Sting.

"The distance of the race is perfect," Turner said, "and the timing is right for some of our future plans."

Gaviola will be ridden by jockey Herberto Castillo Jr. for the first time in the Matchmaker, because regular rider Jerry Bailey will be aboard Captain Steve in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. Gaviola, who always runs on the front end, will not be hard to figure out for her new jockey. She could be the only true speed in the race, run at a distance in which Gaviola is 4-1-0 in six starts.

Although Gaviola is spotting at least seven pounds to her closest rivals, Turner is not too concerned. Nor does he think she will have any trouble with Monmouth's turf course.

"She's been carrying the same weight just about every time lately," he said. "She has run on Belmont's wide sweeping turns, and the shorter turns of Aqueduct, similar to Monmouth. She seems to figure out a way to adapt well."

Christophe Clement, last year's Matchmaker winning trainer, saddles Lucky Lune in an attempt to defend his title. Lucky Lune, a 4-year-old French daughter of Lucky Dancer, ran a game second in the Grade 3 The Very One Handicap Feb. 11 at Gulfstream. She has been rested since, and benefits by a seven-pound weight advantage from the favorite. Clement has employed Eibar Coa to ride.

"The race came up tougher than expected with Gaviola," Clement said. "Nevertheless, we'll try our best and see what happens."

Melody Queen, the favorite in last year's Matchmaker, returns for a second try. She is trained by Michael Dickinson, and will be ridden by top rider Joe Bravo. A 5-year-old mare, she will carry 114 pounds. If a speed duel does not materialize, Melody Queen could have her chances compromised just like last year. In the 2000 running, she raced against a speed bias, and was too far off the pace. She kicked in late, finishing fourth by only two lengths.

The Vinery Matchmaker was run here for the first time in 1997, after being moved from Atlantic City Race Course.