04/28/2010 11:00PM

Belmont faces new competition

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Will fast times - and big bucks - at the Jersey Shore lead to a slow-go at Belmont Park?

Belmont opens its 59-day spring/summer meet on Friday with a nine-race card that drew 95 entries, including nine horses in the Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester Stakes. The question is: Will fields remain as strong three weeks from now when Monmouth Park, located just 70 miles away, opens its summer meet offering, on average, $1 million a day in purses?

P.J. Campo, vice president/director of racing for the New York Racing Association, said the impact Monmouth will have on Belmont is "an unknown right now,'' but he is encouraged by having a full complement of horses at Aqueduct and Belmont. Campo said there are approximately 2,400 horses stabled between the two tracks.

"I think it comes down to what horses fit where and what races go,'' Campo said.

It could also come down to weather. Last summer, Belmont lost 77 turf races due to inclement weather.

Belmont's meet, which runs through July 18, will be three weeks old before Monmouth Park opens on May 22.

"Everyone will get a good feel where we're going before Monmouth even starts,'' Campo said. "The one thing I've been stressing to everyone is we got to communicate. If we communicate, this will work out fine. If we don't communicate, the wheels might come off a little bit.''

Campo said he expects horsemen stabled in New York to run their horses at Belmont and not ship out of town.

"At any racetrack that's the expectation,'' Campo said. "That's all I'm asking for. If a race doesn't go for some reason and a race someplace else goes, I understand you got to make a living. If the races are here and going, I expect the guys that are stabled here and training here to run here.''

As in the past, there are several trainers who will have horses stabled both in New York and Monmouth. Trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Rick Dutrow, and Kiaran McLaughlin could keep some of their better horses in New Jersey.

"We're fortunate enough to be in a position where we got a lot of stakes horses," Pletcher said. "Most of those will be at Belmont. I sent some maidens and 'one-other-thans' that normally would have gone to Belmont to Monmouth. Some of the other horses interchange some. Hopefully, no one's going to get upset if I have a horse stabled at Monmouth that runs at Belmont and vice versa. It's going to have to happen occasionally.''

Said Dutrow: "I think Monmouth Park is going to be an extremely tough place to win this year. I'd be

S8-5 in a six-horse field; now I'll be 10-1 in a 12-horse horse field. It's not a party for anybody training to go there. Everyone in the country's got a Monmouth Park [condition] book; it might be easier to win at Belmont.''

In an attempt to compete with Monmouth Park, the New York Racing Association has eliminated its overnight stakes program for the Belmont meet and used that money to increase purses in maiden, claiming, and allowance races. Last year, Belmont conducted 33 overnight stakes, but averaged fewer than six horses per race.

This summer, Belmont will conduct 33 traditional stakes with purses totaling $7.4 million. Graded events such as the Peter Pan, First Flight, Tom Fool, Nassau County, and Poker have been put on hiatus for this year. Seven other graded races have had their purses slashed by $50,000 or $100,000.

The $1 million Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, will be run on June 5, a day that will feature five other graded stakes.

The stakes action kicks off Friday with the Westchester, the local prep for the prestigious Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap - which had its purse cut by $100,000 to $500,000 here on May 31. Bribon won both races last year when in the barn of Robert Ribaudo.

Purchased in December by Derrick Smith and transferred over to Todd Pletcher, Bribon was beaten a neck in the Barbados Gold Cup on March 6.

"He made the lead, opened up a couple of lengths and got nailed the last jump,'' Pletcher said. "He's come out of Barbados really well.''

Pletcher was 8 years old in 1975 when Allen Jerkens won his first of five Westchesters with Step Nicely. On Friday, Jerkens sends out Le Crand Cru, who has won his last two one-turn mile races run at Belmont, but enters off four subpar races at Gulfstream.

Allen's son, Jimmy, sends out Convocation, who won a first-level allowance race impressively last month at Gulfstream in his first start in seven months. Ironman Jon, a lightly raced New York-bred, makes his stakes debut in the Westchester.