08/12/2002 11:00PM

No excuses for First Lieutenant

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - In the paddock between the second and third races on Sunday, trainer Phil Oliver watched intently as his barn's star, 5-year-old First Lieutenant, went through a routine schooling session, calmly walking through the ring and then up toward the paddock stalls.

Oliver, shades on, leaned up against the white rail of the ring, labeled "Alibi Lane." First Lieutenant has never needed an alibi at Monmouth, having finished in the money in five out of his six races over three summers here. Yet while he has been one of the top handicap horses here the last two years, First Lieutenant is still seeking his first stakes win. Oliver says First Lieutenant is at his best now, which is why the Grade 2 Iselin Handicap this Sunday may be his best opportunity to finally win a stakes.

"He seems better this year than he's ever been," Oliver said. "If he runs according to how he's training, he'll run a big race."

First Lieutenant ran second behind Broken Vow in the $350,000 Iselin last year, a race he had been pointed toward the entire summer. After running twice more last year, First Lieutenant was laid up with minor ailments, which have plagued him throughout his career.

In the Grade 3 Salvator Mile here July 27 - his first start of the year - First Lieutenant crossed the wire first by 1 1/2 lengths, but was disqualified to third for interference. Jockey Carlos Cruz took him off the rail to send him through an opening in the stretch, but they bumped into Free of Love.

Although the disqualification kept First Lieutenant from getting a stakes win, Oliver said it may have been his best race.

"He may have run better speed figures in the past," Oliver said, "but coming off a layoff, and what happened in the race, it was probably his best race."

First Lieutenant breezed five furlongs in 1:01.40 on Monday in his final workout for the Iselin.

Last year, Oliver said, it took a very good horse, Broken Vow, at his best to beat First Lieutenant. "I hope we don't run into the same type of horse again," he said.

With weights, the horses expected for the Iselin are highweight Include (120), Bowman's Band (117), Cat's at Home (116), and First Lieutenant (114). Possible starters include Evening Attire (115), Free of Love (115), Abreeze (114), and Sherpa Guide (113).

Hills poised to win first title

Trainer Tim Hills has been looking in the rearview mirror the last few weeks, but unlike in the last two meets, no one is coming. He finds himself alone at the top of the standings and on the verge of winning his first Monmouth training title. Hills, through the weekend, had 24 wins and led runnerup Terri Pompay by seven.

Hills was involved in a battle for the title last year with Willard Thompson and Ben Perkins Jr., and with Perkins two years ago. With Thompson and Perkins having quieter meets, Hills has enjoyed a comfortable margin at the top of the standings, thanks in large part to wins by his turf runners.

The last two years, Hills won 25 and 24 races, and he will likely eclipse those totals in the remaining 2 1/2 weeks.

"I've had about the same meet the last three years," Hills said. "Some of the other guys have had slow meets. Fortunately I've had horses that fit their conditions well and a lot breaking their maiden."

Hills said he has had fewer winners in recent weeks because of minor injures to some of his standouts, such as Joe's Son Joey and Wish It Were. But with fresh horses waiting in the wings, the odds are high Hills will cross the wire in front.

Hills, 50, is looking to extend his success after Monmouth closes, as he plans to bring a string of 8-10 of his best horses to Belmont Park's fall meet.

Hills won training titles at Rockingham Park in the 1980's before moving his stable to Monmouth full-time six years ago.

"It'll be a huge thrill for me if I do win the title," Hills said. "If 10 years ago you told me I'd eventually be leading trainer here, I would tell you that would be a dream come true."

Lavoy ready for comeback

Jockey Rachel Lavoy, who suffered a fractured clavicle in a spill here June 5, is expected to return to riding next Wednesday.

Lavoy suffered the injury when her mount, Raire Cliffs, fell going into the first turn of the turf course. Before her injury, Lavoy had five wins in 49 starts at the meet.

"I've been getting on horses the last three days at Saratoga," Lavoy said Sunday. "I'm a little sore, but I think it will be a quick comeback."

* North East Bound, unraced with foot problems since the Explosive Bid Handicap at the Fair Grounds March 24, breezed three furlongs in 35.40 Sunday. It was his second workout since returning to the track July 31. Trainer Bill Perry is pointing North East Bound, a 6-year-old multiple stakes winner on dirt and turf, to a return at The Meadowlands, in either the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup on the dirt Oct. 4 or the Grade 3 Cliff Hanger on the turf Oct. 11.

* The featured eighth race on Thursday is a six-furlong entry-level allowance for 3-year-olds and up. High Cascade, trained by Ben Perkins Jr., leads a field of seven. In his third start off a layoff, and fourth for Perkins since leaving the barn of D. Wayne Lukas, High Cascade looks like the controlling speed. Dale Beckner rides from post 2.