07/10/2003 12:00AM

Grand Hombre: Slow and easy

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Dennis Manning was as downbeat as the rainy weather at Monmouth Park on Thursday morning.

Manning, with a barnful of turf runners, faced another day without grass racing here.

"I'm getting killed," he said.

Manning's mood brightened when the topic shifted to Grand Hombre, the unbeaten but inexperienced 3-year-old who has been the most talked-about horse on the grounds.

Manning beat the rain, sending Grand Hombre out for a half-mile drill in 48.80 seconds. Manning caught the move in 26.40 seconds for the first quarter and a sensational 22.40-second finish.

"He breezed really well this morning," Manning said. "When you can see a horse accelerate like that, it's very impressive."

The sharp work did not change Manning's decision to pass up the Grade 3, $100,000 Long Branch Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles Saturday at Monmouth. A stakes, in Manning's opinion, would be too much, too soon for a horse who has made only two starts and didn't switch leads in either race.

Manning would rather see the horse work his way through his conditions. He has sketched out a game plan for another allowance race at Monmouth later this month followed by an allowance at Saratoga.

If Grand Hombre handles those challenges, Manning will look for a stakes race, including the Pennsylvania Derby, the West Virginia Derby, and the Super Derby.

"I just think it would be better for the horse to run through conditions and get seasoning before I went and tried the big boys," Manning said. "I just don't think it's a good idea to run in the Long Branch."

Throwing in the towel on the Long Branch also took Grande Hombre out of the running for the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell on Aug. 3.

That's not a decision made lightly.

"It's hard to sit out a Haskell when you have a horse that you feel has the ability to be competitive," Manning said. "Experience tells me it's better to season the horse and go after them later with a fresh horse."

Manning also said that Key Lory, his veteran turf star, has been retired.

"I didn't think he could come out and run up to par, because he's getting old and he has infirmities," Manning said. "We wouldn't race him unless he could run up to par, and I didn't want to see him come off the track in an ambulance."

Key Lory, now 9, won two of Monmouth's biggest turf handicaps, the 2002 Red Bank and the 2001 Oceanport.

Key Lory will be pensioned to owner Mac Fehsenfeld's farm in Indiana.

Backstretch picnic on Monday

The 12th annual Backstretch Appreciation Day picnic is scheduled for Monday, with Tuesday reserved as a rain date.

Dan Perlsweig and Kevin Weldon, co-chairmen of the event, expect a turnout of over 2,000 for the picnic, which is open to all backstretch personnel and their families. It runs from noon to 3 p.m. and takes place in the track's picnic area.

The picnic will feature a wide range of food and beverages along with games, prizes, and family-oriented amusements, including clowns, magicians, and face painters.

The highlight, as usual, will be the Jack Russell terrier races.