07/09/2003 11:00PM

In Hand takes shot at Grade 3

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The more trainer Phil Oliver thought about the Grade 3, $100,000 Long Branch Stakes, the more sense it made to enter In Hand.

On one hand, it seems like a major leap to take a horse who has made only three starts and enter him in the traditional prep for the $1 million Haskell Invitational, to be run Aug. 3.

On the other, the lineup for Saturday's 1 1/16-mile stakes for 3-year-olds was not shaping up as deep or challenging.

In Hand, owning only a maiden special weight win, does not look badly outclassed by most of the runners in the race.

"He's a pretty talented horse," Oliver said. "Obviously, I'd like to have a couple of more races under his belt going into it. I do think he's a nice horse and he's only going to get better. If he's as talented as I think he's going to be, he'll run good."

In Hand debuted in a sprint at Keeneland in April and rallied from eighth to finish fourth. He has been more competitive since shifting to routes - In Hand followed the maiden win with a third-place finish in a Monmouth allowance race.

Size worked against In Hand. "He's a big horse and needed more time to mature," Oliver said. "He took a long time."

On a rainy and dreary Thursday morning, Oliver also mulled the fact that In Hand owns considerable wet-track experience. All three starts were on off tracks.

"It might give me a little bit of an edge," Oliver said.

For In Hand, the Haskell seems a distant goal.

"I'm not really looking at the Haskell," Oliver said. "That would be a pretty big stretch right now, but stranger things have happened."

Some of the other Long Branch runners are being pointed to the Haskell.

Christine's Outlaw has the most stakes experience in the six-horse field. He ran third in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn but could not handle the slop in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. He rebounded to finish a hard-fought second in the Grade 3 Leonard Richards Stakes at Delaware Park.

Allen Jerkens sends out Chilly Rooster, who ran third in his lone stakes try, the Grade 3 Hill Prince at Belmont.

Newfoundland, trained by Todd Pletcher, who won the Grade 1, $750,000 United Nations Handicap last weekend with Balto Star, raced on the turf in Europe last season. The colt has won one of four U.S. starts.

Max Forever and Ashmore complete the field.