03/01/2007 1:00AM

Breeders' Cup preparations on schedule


OCEANPORT, N.J. - A walk through Monmouth Park on a recent afternoon was a jarring experience. Fences were knocked down, benches scattered about, hedges uprooted, barn doors ripped away.

The scene would qualify for a "Nature's Fury" segment on the Weather Channel - except the chaos was man-made, wholly by design.

Monmouth is in the midst an off-season like no other in the storied track's history. The Breeders' Cup is coming to New Jersey for the first time in October. In preparation, Monmouth is undergoing a thorough renovation that will touch almost every inch of the facility, from the humble grooms' quarters on the backstretch to the swank parterre boxes atop the clubhouse.

The $30 million project, which began in earnest at the conclusion of live racing in September, is on target, according to Bob Kulina, the vice president and general manager of Thoroughbred racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

"I think we're right on schedule," Kulina said. "There is so much going on. You always like to be further ahead than you are, but overall, I think we're in pretty good shape."

Two of the biggest upgrades center on the racing surfaces, including a new turf course, which opened last summer.

"Once the course set up, I was extremely pleased with it at the end of the meet," Kulina said. "It held up really well when you went out there and looked at it."

A new dirt cushion for the main track is coming this year. When racing concluded last fall, the old cushion was stripped off and the dark gray base left open for the winter.

"We chose to let the base sit all winter so it can really set up right," Kulina said. "We'll re-roll it and shoot the grades in the next two weeks. Once we think it's okay, we'll put the cushion down. We expect to have the track ready for training in the middle of April.

"It's the conventional cushion everyone uses on the East Coast. Hopefully, it will be a safe and good surface."

Live racing resumes May 12, and many of the improvements should be in place by the start of the meet.

"If you are familiar with Monmouth Park, you will notice the difference as soon as you come in," Kulina said.

The patron improvements include: extensive infield landscaping, a new sound system, refurbishing of all major elevators and escalators, expansion of the popular picnic area, new furniture in the dining rooms, renovated concession stands, and upgraded rest rooms.

For some things gained, others were lost.

A new group party tent will overlook the paddock, replacing one of Monmouth's traditional amenities for jockeys - an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

"After more than 60 years, the pool was shot," Kulina said. "That was one of the sad things."

Backstretch improvements include the painting and repairing of barns and grooms' quarters and the upgrading the electrical system.

Some projects will continue during the meet, the rebuilding of the patio terrace at the end of the clubhouse being the most prominent. Once completed in July, the terrace will serve as a live racing and simulcast center while the seating on its roof will offer a spectacular view of the track.