08/22/2001 12:00AM

Oliver putting First Lieutenant into tough Iselin fray

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - First Lieutenant was the first horse that Phil Oliver trained and remains his best horse since becoming a public trainer in 1999.

For that reason, Oliver, 31, has campaigned First Lieutenant carefully and cautiously. First Lieutenant, a 4-year-old son of Sea Hero, has dominated allowance company this year. Sunday is the day when the colt takes the big step up that Oliver has been preparing him for, as he is set to make his most important career start in the Grade 2 $350,000 Iselin Handicap. With First Lieutenant the star of Oliver's barn, Sunday will also be the most important day yet for Oliver as a trainer.

"We'll see what he's made of Sunday," said Oliver, a native of Slough, England, who moved to the U.S. in 1990. "He has done everything right going into the race. Now he has to do it against good horses."

First Lieutenant, a homebred owned by G. Watts Humphrey, was put up for auction at the 1998 Keeneland September yearling sales, but was eventually bought back for $39,000 when there were no takers. Oliver had been working as an assistant trainer for Elliott Walden since 1995, but when he decided to start his own stable at the beginning of 1999, he was sent First Lieutenant by Humphrey as a yearling. Humphrey had horses trained by Walden, and when Oliver opened up his own stable, he sent Oliver the young horse.

First Lieutenant, the first foal out of the mare Another Zone, was a small yearling, but matured into a fine racehorse very quickly. He won his 2-year-old debut, and made his Monmouth debut amidst much hype in the summer of his 3-year-old season. He won an allowance at 1-5 in late June, and then made his only career stakes appearance in the Long Branch Stakes for 3-year-olds. He encountered traffic problems and finished fifth. The Iselin will be his first stakes appearance since last year, and will be his first graded stakes try.

According to Oliver, First Lieutenant has navigated his summer campaign here well, as the trainer has been pointing the horse to the Iselin for three months. He will be tackling top handicap horses Sir Bear and Broken Vow, but the trainer feels he is up to the challenge off two impressive five-length allowance victories this meet. First Lieutenant is 3 for 3 this year.

"He's real confident right now," Oliver said. "He has given me every indication that he can run against these top horses."

First Lieutenant will carry 114 pounds in the Iselin, receiving five and three pounds from Broken Vow and Sir Bear, respectively. Mark Guidry will ship down from Saratoga to ride First Lieutenant for the first time.

Sir Bear arrives; Rize won't be back

Eight-year-old gelding Sir Bear, a three-time Grade 1 winner trained by Ralph Ziadie, shipped in to Monmouth Wednesday at noon for Sunday's Iselin. Eibar Coa, who was the regular rider of Sir Bear until his last two races, regains the mount on Sunday. Coa rode Sir Bear in last year's Iselin runner-up finish.

In other Iselin news, Rize will not be back to defend his 2000 Iselin victory. "He's not up to snuff," trainer Norman Pointer said. "I worked him the other day and, I wasn't happy with the way he went. He won't be running anywhere for a while."

The Iselin is shaping up as a five- or six-horse field. Definite starters for the race are Sir Bear, First Lieutenant, and Broken Vow. Call It Off, Elite Mercedes, North East Bound, and Polish Miner are also possibilities.

Velasquez picking up pace

Apprentice Daniel Velasquez, 17, knew when he first sat on a horse five years ago that he would eventually be a jockey. That goal materialized when Velasquez took out his jockey's license in March. Velasquez began riding at Philadelphia Park, where his father, Alfredo, is a trainer. Velasquez won on his second career mount and achieved moderate success before relocating to Monmouth nearly a month ago.

Velasquez started riding at Monmouth without an agent, booking his own mounts from Philadelphia Park. He started galloping horses here in the morning only last week. But despite getting off to a slow start, Velasquez has done well of late, winning four races after coming up empty in his first 10.

"It was a little rocky when I first started here," he said. "I made the move here to pick up some business heading into The Meadowlands."

Velasquez picked up a new agent, Joe Burdo, for the remainder of the meet and The Meadowlands. Burdo, who also has the book of Jose Velez Jr., replaced Ray Lopez, who had been Velasquez's agent in Pennsylvania, as he was very close friends with his father.

Velasquez has had success aboard horses for Derek Ryan. Velasquez won two races for Ryan on Aug. 9, hitting on two longshots, paying $35.60 and $20.60. "He's the one that has put me on most of my winners," Velasquez said. "He's given me a great opportunity, and other trainers have taken notice."

Velasquez is confident that he will be able to keep pace with the leading apprentices, Victor Carrero and Julian Pimentel, at The Meadowlands meet.

"Riding here has been worth it," he said. "I think I will do really well at The Meadowlands."

* Madame Modjeska, trained by Alan Goldberg, heads a field of 10 for Friday's feature, a $37,000 entry-level allowance at five furlongs on the turf for fillies and mares. She won her maiden race sprinting on the turf at Atlantic City and was third here at Friday's conditions earlier in the meet.