07/30/2002 12:00AM

Puck plays hometown hero


OCEANPORT, N.J. - In the last decade of the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth, the crowd has usually been able to cheer for a hometown favorite. While this year's field does not include any Monmouth-based horses, Puck has turned into the local rooting choice with his extended stay here following a win in the Long Branch Stakes on July 13.

Amidst the roller-coaster ride of the Haskell field, which saw defections of two major stars, and the status of War Emblem change three times, Puck has remained the first horse committed and the one constant.

It's strange to think that a horse who had never left the state of Florida before coming to New Jersey for the Grade 3 Long Branch, the prep for the $1 million Haskell, would be considered the local favorite. But from his upset win in the Long Branch, to trainer Bill White's quick decision in the winner's circle to keep the horse here leading up to the Haskell, the gray Puck has fit in just fine on the Monmouth backside.

In three weeks here, he has become the Monmouth 3-year-old that is annually expected to take on the big boys in the racetrack's marquee race.

"He loves it here," said Juan Duarte, Puck's exercise rider and assistant trainer, who has stayed at Monmouth with the colt since the Long Branch. "He's been doing everything right and has been training awesome. If he fires in the Haskell like he did in the Long Branch, he'll be right there."

The connections of Puck have always had high expectations for him, but White never expected this would be the first horse he would ever start here. Puck has modest breeding, by Mr. Greeley out of the Relaunch mare Dawn Launch, and was justly purchased for $32,000 at the Ocala April 2-year-old sales by owner Stephanie Preston of Classic Contenders.

But in his third career start, a seven-length maiden win at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26, Puck flashed the potential his connections expected. He ran second in an allowance race at Gulfstream before being spotted in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby. Puck ran ninth, beaten nearly 35 lengths. White still has no explanation for the race.

"I might go to my grave not being able to explain that effort," White said.

Don't expect him to throw in a similar clunker in the Haskell. He has two stakes wins since the Florida Derby and a monster allowance victory, and since winning the Long Branch, he has thrived at the Jersey Shore. Puck worked six furlongs in an impressive 1:13 last Thursday and was scheduled for his final workout on Wednesday.

While Puck may be a longshot in the Haskell, he certainly has shown the ability to pull off a major upset. And with the support of the local fans behind him, anything's possible.

The Haskell is shaping up as either a six- or seven-horse field. In addition to Puck, the definite starters are War Emblem, Magic Weisner, Like a Hero, Island Skipper, and Mr. Mellon. The two probable horses remaining are Easyfromthegitgo and Peekskill. Trainer Tony Reinstedler said Tuesday from Saratoga that he was leaning toward running Peekskill.

McCarron a special guest

There will be two Hall of Fame jockeys on the track for the Haskell - Laffit Pincay Jr. aboard Like a Hero and Pat Day on Mr. Mellon - but there will also be a Hall of Fame jockey in attendance for the weekend festivities.

Recently retired Chris McCarron will be Monmouth's special guest throughout the weekend. He is scheduled to participate in a two-hour autograph session on Saturday. There will be a $5 fee for a photo and autograph. On Haskell Day, McCarron will be the guest handicapper at the paddock handicapping seminar hosted by track announcer Larry Collmus, which starts at 11:30 a.m.

First Lieutenant eyes Iselin

Trainer Phil Oliver said First Lieutenant, first to cross the wire but disqualified to third in the Grade 3 Salvator Mile last Saturday, came out of the race in good condition. Oliver said he will consider a return in the Grade 2 Iselin Handicap on Aug. 18, a race First Lieutenant ran second in last year, depending on how the horse bounces back from his big effort.

First Lieutenant's start in the Salvator was his first since Nov. 18. He had always fired off long layoffs, and this time was no different. At the top of the stretch, jockey Carlos Cruz took him off the rail and shot for an opening, but First Lieutenant bumped Free of Love repeatedly. First Lieutenant crossed the wire in front by 1 1/2 lengths.

"He ran great," Oliver said. "I couldn't have asked him to run better than he did off a nine-month layoff. It's hard to bring a horse back in three weeks, but we'll see "

Skipper's Mate heads Colleen

Saturday's $50,000 Colleen Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs, the first stakes of the meet for 2-year-old fillies, looks like it will have a compact field. Skipper's Mate should be the favorite, based on her impressive four-length maiden win at five furlongs July 17.

Trainer Eddie Gaudet said Skipper's Mate, a daughter of Skip Away, has been doing well leading up to her second start. "I'm very pleased with the way she's doing," Gaudet said. "She couldn't be better. The only thing that may beat us is not having more ground."

Skipper's Mate flashed a tremendous late kick in her debut, closing from nearly eight lengths back in the stretch to win going away. Another filly expected for the Colleen, Milliondollarlady, should also eventually benefit from longer distances. Trained by Mary Hartmann, Milliondollarlady has run fourth in the Astoria Stakes on June 30 and the Fashion Stakes on June 6, both at Belmont.