07/03/2002 12:00AM

Key Lory will play try and catch me

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Days before his biggest career test, Key Lory was quiet Wednesday morning in his Monmouth Park stall with two fans keeping the 8-year-old cool while temperatures rose quickly to the high 90's outside the barn.

Heading into the Grade 1, $500,000 United Nations on Saturday, Key Lory's undefeated record on turf hangs in the balance. He is the local favorite and the story of how he got here is truly amazing. All that's left for him is to take on the big guns Saturday before a live audience on CBS and cap off what has been an outstanding run since last August.

"We're going from the minor leagues to the major leagues," trainer Dennis Manning said. "We're taking on the big boys and it won't be easy, but we'll find out Saturday, won't we?"

In the twilight of his career, Key Lory has found new life on the turf. He had been a stakes winner on the dirt, so there were never serious thoughts of switching surfaces. But Manning said a decision was made during the winter of 2000-2001 to try the grass and see how he ran. Key Lory made his debut on the turf last August in the Grade 3 Oceanport Handicap, and surprised everyone by wiring the field to start what has been a streak of four consecutive turf stakes victories.

Manning set the United Nations as a goal for Key Lory in the spring, and he has followed schedule by winning the Grade 3 Red Bank here May 25 in his 2002 debut and training up to this race. Since the Red Bank, he has strung together three solid turf workouts, and the only thing close to slowing him down since then has been the tremendous heat.

On Saturday, two Grade 1 turf winners and a Group 1 winner in France will be trying to stop Key Lory. Manning said now's as good a time as any to try and pull off yet another upset.

"Key Lory is probably the best horse I've ever trained; he is just sheer class," Manning said. "I've prepared him as good as I know how to do. Now we'll just take some racing luck on Saturday."

Key Lory has won each of his turf starts from gate to wire and Manning said the instructions to jockey Harry Vega would be no different.

"My strategy is simple," Manning said. "He'll go to the front and run his race. They'll have to beat me from there."

Schuylerville next for 'Wildcat'

Two-year-old filly Mike's Wildcat, winner of the Astoria Stakes at Belmont last Sunday, came back to her barn at Monmouth in good shape and is scheduled to make her next start in the Grade 2 Schuylerville at Saratoga opening day July 24.

Mike's Wildcat, trained by Jeff Bonde, was impressive when she won her maiden here May 30 in her second career start, but was dismissed at 14-1 when she traveled up to New York for the Astoria. She wired the field and won easily by eight lengths under jockey Jose Santos.

"I told Jose, 'If they give you the lead, take it and don't look back.' He rode her confidently and never asked her for run," said assistant trainer Sal Muniz, who oversees the Bonde stable at Monmouth. "I've been confident in her since day one and she is still improving."

Tates Creek heads Matchmaker

Trainer Bobby Frankel has a hot hand for this weekend's turf stakes, as he ships in Denon for the United Nations and Tates Creek for Sunday's Grade 3, $100,000 Matchmaker Handicap for fillies and mares at nine furlongs.

Tates Creek, a 4-year-old, has been a very consistent horse on the turf since switching to that surface in her second career start last year. She won the Grade 3 Jenny Wiley Handicap at Keeneland this year over Snow Dance and Step With Style and most recently was beaten a neck by Babae in the Grade 3 Just a Game Breeders' Cup Handicap on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Frankel said after the race that Tates Creek was too far off the pace. She should be a heavy favorite Sunday.

Other confirmed starters for Matchmaker are Clearly a Queen, Notable Craft, and Platinum Tiara. Presumed Innocent, Quidnaskra, Silver Rail, and Sluice are probable starters.

In the past, the Matchmaker winner was also awarded stud rights to three different stallions by sponsor Vinery Stud, but the farm dropped its sponsorship this year.

Belle Artiste, True Rose rematch

The $50,000 West Long Branch Stakes for fillies at six furlongs is the Friday feature. Belle Artiste, trained by Rusty Arnold, ships in from Belmont off a third-place finish in the $65,000 WNBC Stakes June 8 and should be the favorite in the eight-horse field.

True Rose also ships in from New York for trainer Billy Turner and actually finished ahead of Belle Artiste, but was disqualified and placed second behind her, in their only meeting in a three-other-than allowance March 15.

The Todd Pletcher-trained Tugger won the Grade 3 Nobel Damsel Handicap at Belmont last September and has battled in graded stakes throughout the year.