05/23/2003 11:00PM

Big horse enters too late to spread word


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Empire Maker was entered in the Jersey Derby at the last minute on Saturday, taking racing officials by surprise. Due to the late entry, Monmouth officials said Saturday that they can do little to promote Empire Maker's appearance than hope for better weather than the misty rain under cold gray skies that prevailed on Saturday, opening day of the meet.

"We're going to have to rely on the press," said Bruce Garland, the general manager of Monmouth. "That and the buzz that a horse like Empire Maker can generate. But really, this is a great horse area, this area loves great horses, and they'll respond. The word will get out. You'll hear it in the restaurants and bars around the track tonight."

Attendance last year for the Memorial Day card was 16,824. The Jersey Derby was also held that day.

The Monday forecast calls for some sun in the morning and the possibility of clouds and rain in the afternoon.

And that's not all . . .

Come see the Kentucky Derby favorite at Monmouth Park.

That wasn't Monmouth's scheduled Memorial Day promotion, which is a free grandstand admission pass for June to the first 10,000 fans who pay admission on Monday. Those who show up expecting just the pass will count themselves fortunate if Empire Maker runs.

Summertime, not summer weather

Monmouth officials said that they could not remember an opening-day card held under less ideal conditions than on Saturday. Rains drenched the track and the rest of the Northeast for four days before the opener, and on Saturday the temperature hovered in the low 50's while rain continued to fall.

Horsemen supported the 12-race card at the entry box, with 120 horses on the overnight sheet, or an average of 10 per race. But 35 horses were scratched on Saturday, including 11 of the 15 horses in the featured Red Bank Handicap, which was moved off the turf.

How much are they worth?

George Zoffinger, the president and chief executive officer of Monmouth's owner, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, said Saturday that the authority's bid to put a value on Monmouth and the authority's other track, The Meadowlands, does not mean there is a plan to sell the properties.

"We're looking at the value just to see whether or not it makes sense to sell," Zoffinger said. "It will depend on the price. We think the assets are worth more than the debt, and the goal is to get the sports authority out of debt."

The authority also owns The Meadowlands sports complex across the Hudson River from New York City. The authority is struggling to generate profit, despite the fact that both of its tracks are in the black.

Zoffinger said any agreement to sell the tracks would come with a stipulation that the facilities remain racetracks. Zoffinger also said the tracks might be more valuable to consolidating companies like Churchill Downs and Magna Entertainment than to the state because of the companies' ability to bundle racing signals in the out-of-state market.

"The way the business is changing, it's really become a content business," Zoffinger said. "Live handle keeps going down, but our signal is strong. [Magna and Churchill] could probably make a lot more with the signal."

Zoffinger estimates the value of both tracks is in the $225-$250 million range. Much value comes from The Meadowlands, which generates annual cash flow of about $20 million.

In addition to its high-profile harness meet, The Meadowlands is the highest-handling offtrack betting site in the country.

* Joe Bravo began the Monmouth meet with a return to form, winning the first race on favored In Hand by a half-length. Bravo won eight riding titles at Monmouth Park over 10 seasons, from 1991-2000, but his career over the past two years has been hurt by injuries.