06/30/2004 11:00PM

Top spot Meteor Storm's for taking

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Meteor Storm goes for his second straight Grade 1 victory Saturday in the $750,000 United Nations Handicap at Monmouth Park.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - The male turf division has been branded by some a weak group lacking an assertive leader.

Meteor Storm has an opportunity to alter that perception with a second straight Grade 1 victory Saturday in the $750,000 at Monmouth Park.

The U.N., the 10th of 11 races, is the third leg of the NTRA National Pick 4, which offers a guaranteed pool of $400,000. The races will be broadcast live on ESPN from 4 to 6 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the U.N. is 5:20 p.m.

Aimee Dollase, assistant trainer to her father, Wally Dollase, said of Meteor Storm, "We know we have a very good horse."

That talent blossomed this spring as Meteor Storm embarked on his current three-race winning streak. He won consecutive Grade 2 handicaps at Santa Anita, posting Beyer Speed Figures of 102 in both.

Meteor Storm made his boldest divisional statement when he came east to take the Grade 1 Manhattan on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Meteor Storm swept past the field to ring up a lifetime best Beyer of 109.

Assuming all goes well in the U.N., Meteor Storm will next contest the Grade 1 Arlington Million on Aug. 14.

By then, Meteor Storm could be the undisputed division leader.

"We've had some very good turf horses and he ranks right at the top with them," said Dollase. "I don't know if the division is weak like they say it is, but there are some very solid grass horses out there."

Several of those solid grass horses will challenge Meteor Storm, who drew the outside post in the 12-horse field.

Hard Buck earned Grade 1 spurs this year with his win in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap.

A globe-trotting 5-year-old, Hard Buck began racing in his native Brazil and has already made two trips to Dubai.

He finished second in his last two races, the Group 1 Sheema Classic in Dubai and the Opening Verse Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Hard Buck had some traffic trouble in the Opening Verse as he lacked room at the half-mile pole in a race contested over a yielding course.

Mr O'Brien returned to the turf in the spring and has made rapid strides in a short period of time.

He won the Henry Clark Stakes by nine widening lengths at Pimlico on May 1. Mr O'Brien came back two weeks later on the Preakness undercard to capture the Grade 2 Dixie Stakes with a powerful four-wide sweep.

Mr O'Brien next headed to Belmont for the Manhattan on June 5, rallying for third, 1 1/4 lengths behind Meteor Storm.

"All I know is that my horse is doing great," said trainer Robin Graham.

Balto Star, last year's U.N. winner, makes his first start since finishing second by a head to Hard Buck in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap in February.

Balto Star, a confirmed front-runner, will undoubtedly dictate the pace. He set a modest clip in last year's U.N. and managed to hold on at 37-1 with Jose Velez Jr. aboard.

Megantic and Better Talk Now, the first two finishers in the Battlefield Stakes here on June 12, will take a swing at the U.N.

Completing the field are Bowman Mill, winner of the Grade 2 Sky Classic Handicap at Woodbine last fall; Request for Parole, a traffic-troubled fifth in the Manhattan; In Hand; Catechol; and Final Prophecy.

The field

United Nations Handicap
Purse: $750,000; 1 3/8 miles (Turf); Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1In HandS. Elliott11820-1
2Request for ParoleE. Prado1188-1
3Balto StarJ. Velez1187-2
4Nothing to LoseR. Migliore11810-1
5Bowman MillJ. Bravo11810-1
6Hard BuckB. Blanc1224-1
7Mr O'BrienR. Dominguez1205-1
8MeganticJ. Pimentel11812-1
9Better Talk NowE. Coa11820-1
10 CatecholM. Baze11850-1
11Final ProphecyE. King Jr.11850-1
12Meteor StormJ. Valdivia Jr.1223-1

* Odds by Art Gropper
* Television: Saturday, 4-6 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN