07/16/2001 12:00AM

Ready for a promotion: First Lieutenant bound for graded

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Phil Oliver knows First Lieutenant is a good horse. He is just biding his time until First Lieutenant can show that he is a top handicap horse.

That opportunity could come on Aug, 5 in the Grade 3 Salvator Mile, but more likely in the Grade 2 Iselin Handicap on Aug. 26. The Iselin has been the objective all along for First Lieutenant, who remained on track for Monmouth's premier handicap race by dominating a tough allowance field that included graded stakes winner Leave It to Beezer on here Saturday.

Under Joe Bravo, First Lieutenant sat near the back of the pack till the final turn, where he pounced on the leaders and cruised down the stretch to win by 5 1/4 lengths. Bravo never pushed First Lieutenant, who was practically eased at the wire because there were no challengers in sight. He is now 3 for 3 in his 4-year-old season, including two dominating allowance wins over the Monmouth strip.

Heading into the race, though, Oliver wasn't sure if he was going to run First Lieutenant, who had come down with a virus a few weeks earlier.

"I wasn't sure if he was over it," said Oliver, "but he ran a good race and it was the best he has ever come out of race."

First Lieutenant was scratched from the Skip Away Stakes on June 30, missing a showdown with the eventual winner, Broken Vow, who was third as the beaten favorite in the Massachusetts Handicap to Include and Sir Bear. First Lieutenant had contracted a fever of 103 and his white blood count was high. Any ill effects were not to be seen on Saturday, though, in possibly First Lieutenant's most impressive win to date. Broken Vow could be back to Monmouth in the Iselin, setting up the first meeting between the two.

"We will take a look at the Salvator Mile," said Oliver, who has brought First Lieutenant along carefully, "but we will probably just train him."

I'm Sentimental impressive in defeat

The connections of I'm Sentimental, owner Lawrence Foggle and trainer Tim Hills, had been looking forward to his turf and two-turn debut on Saturday in the $50,000 Bet Twice Stakes. I'm Sentimental did not disappoint, finishing second to graded-stakes placed Sardaukar, who made his first start for trainer Alan Goldberg after battling the best turf runners of the West in the past two years. I'm Sentimental broke to the lead in the mile race, and held on strongly for place. He finished ahead of turf stakes winners, including Grade 3 Red Bank winner Pavillon.

According to Hills, it is not definite whether he will remain on turf or head back to dirt, where he has five wins in eight starts. But the luxury of him handling both surfaces is a good one to have.

"We are real happy with his performance," Hills said. "He is very versatile, and we thought he would do well on the turf. He always shows up and runs consistently."

I'm Sentimental, in his two stakes appearances this meet, has run into top-notch horses. In the $75,000 Longfellow Stakes, he finished second to quick sprinter Max's Pal. In the Bet Twice, he ran into Sardaukar, who had been second to Dark Moondancer and Irish Prize last year, while stabled in the barn of Julio Canani.

"The race was very competitive for only $50,000," Hills said. "He got beat a legit horse."

Dowd in action

Saturday was a busy work day for the barn of John Dowd. Two of his top 3-year-olds, Astrid and Shooter, breezed three furlongs in 37.00 seconds. Shooter, the winner of the Grade 3 Sapling last year, was third in his seasonal debut here June 10. Astrid, winner of the Serena's Song Stakes July 4, could start next in the Monmouth Breeders' Cup Oaks on June 28.

Shockittoem, third in one of the toughest maiden races of the meet July 4, worked five furlongs in 1:01, handily.