07/11/2002 12:00AM

Stephentown needs to step forward now

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The expectations have been high for Stephentown his whole career, dating back to his purchase as a yearling and heading through the Triple Crown intentions his connections had for him when he started in the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park last winter.

Yet Stephentown will be gunning for his first stakes victory - and trying to move a step closer to fulfilling some of those expectations - in the Grade 3, $100,000 Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth on Saturday. The 1 1/16-mile Long Branch, the prep for the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on Aug. 4., drew a field of six 3-year-olds.

Stephentown sold for $500,000 at the Keeneland July yearling sale in 2000 and burst onto the scene of the 3-year-old division when he romped to a five-length victory in an entry-level allowance at Gulfstream on Jan. 9.

The victory put Stephentown on the Triple Crown trail, and the hype surrounding his impressive allowance score made him a 5-2 second choice in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 16. He never fired over the wet track and ran sixth that day.

Since leaving Florida, Stephentown has an allowance win at Churchill and two runner-up finishes. In his last start, the $100,000 Northern Dancer on June 15, Stephentown ran second to Danthebluegrassman.

Trainer Anthony Reinstedler, who will bring Stephentown to Saratoga after the race, said the colt does his best work around two turns. Stephentown has not had the opportunity to run around two turns since his two 1 1/16-mile races at Gulfstream this winter. A win in the Long Branch, Reinstedler said, would make Stephentown a candidate for either the Haskell or the Jim Dandy at Saratoga the same weekend.

"He's starting to come into himself now," Reinstedler said. "The Long Branch will be his fourth start off a layoff and he is most effective around two turns."

An expected quick pace should favor the mid-pack running style of Stephentown, who will be ridden by Eibar Coa. Four starters - Essayons, Shah Jehan, Puck, and Smoked Em - have done their best work on the front end. Heir D'Twine completes the field.

Puck, trained by Bill White, won the Unbridled Stakes at Calder on June 22 on the front end and will be out quick from the gate. The lightly-raced Essayons, trained by John Kimmel, was an impressive gate-to-wire allowance winner at Belmont on June 14 and ran fourth two starts back in the Grade 2 Peter Pan. Smoked Em won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on April 20 over Magic Weisner.

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