07/11/2002 11:00PM

Business numbers still down a bit

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Halfway through the 78-day Monmouth meet, the business numbers have improved in the last month but continue to be down from last year's benchmark meet that set records in handle and attendance.

While two of the premier races of the meet, the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher and Grade 1 United Nations, were televised on CBS in the last two weeks and drew outstanding fields, the attendance on those days was not great. The daily attendance is averaging 9,626 this year, down 7 percent from last year.

Total handle has improved in the last month, but the $3.17 million bet daily is down 5 percent from last year's average at this time. Of the total handle, the amount bet on Monmouth offtrack is down 2 percent, and in-house betting on live racing is down 13 percent.

But with War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, set for the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational in three weeks, track officials are looking for another record-setting day. A total of 47,127 showed up to see Point Given win last year's race.

Robert Kulina, Monmouth's general manager, said business has been up every day in the last week, with the weather cooling off after a heat spell running through the July 4 holiday weekend. Kulina also said the quality of the product, with better and larger fields, has risen in recent weeks.

"Hopefully, we'll have a big second half of the meet," Kulina said. "Since July 4 we've been doing very well, and that's a good sign. With War Emblem coming to the Haskell, it will be a great day, and that usually spills over to the rest of the meet."

With Saratoga set to take the Monmouth signal for the second time this year when it opens up in less than two weeks, the amount wagered on the Monmouth product from simulcasting should get a boost.

Dixie goes for first stakes win

Dixie Two Thousand has 7 wins in 10 lifetime starts, and the talented 4-year-old will be looking for his first stakes victory in Sunday's $50,000 Bernie Dowd Handicap for statebreds at six furlongs.

Dixie Two Thousand started his career at Monmouth last year by running through the Jersey-bred ranks with four consecutive wins. In his first two starts versus open company at The Meadowlands, he extended his winning streak to six before coming a head short in the Great Falls, his first stakes appearance.

This meet, Dixie Two Thousand, trained by Willard Thompson, ran out of the money for the first time in the John J. Reilly Handicap on May 12. But he returned with a huge effort in an open allowance on June 12, recording six furlongs in 1:09.69 to win by eight lengths. He has been rested since then and should be favored in a field of eight.

Gerosa still feeling good

Gerosa, who made his successful return to the races July 4 after recovering from a recurring leg injury, worked out for the first time since the race on Friday, breezing four furlongs in 49.80 seconds.

The 5-year-old Gerosa, undefeated in four career starts since beginning his career as a 3-year-old, had exited nearly every one of his previous races with an injury. That has not been the case since his last victory, which came off over a year-layoff, and trainer John Forbes is confident that Gerosa is past the complications that have prevented him from stringing together starts.

"For him to be back breezing a week after he ran is just great," Forbes said. "He's doing excellent. For the first time in his life he's been a normal horse."

Forbes said he timed Gerosa's last furlong in 11.20.

As for Gerosa's next start, Forbes had pointed out the Grade 3 Salvator Mile on July 27 or the Grade 2 Iselin Handicap, but he said the races seem to be coming up tough and may not want to place Gerosa in a difficult spot with only one start off an extended layoff.

"We'll nominate to a few races, and watch and wait to see who shows up," Forbes said.

Hills involved in another close race

In the last two years, trainer Tim Hills has been involved in tight races for the trainer's title only to come up short in the last week or two. Through Friday, he had 15 wins, three more than Terri Pompay, the biggest surprise near the top of the standings. Norman Pointer was in third with 11 and Mary Hartmann has 10 for fourth.

"We're only at the three-eighths pole," Hills said, "and there's a long way to go. I have a lot of fresh horses coming around, and that's always nice."

In the jockey standings, Eibar Coa, the defending champion, is atop the standings once again with 41 wins. With Joe Bravo injured early in the meet, Coa is the favorite to win his second title. Runner-up Jose Velez Jr. is having a great meet with 35 wins. Chuck Lopez is in third with 33 wins, and Eddie King and Jose Ferrer are tied in fourth with 30.

o The 11th annual Backstretch Appreciation Day Picnic, a free event held for backstretch employees and their families, will be held Monday in the Monmouth picnic area. More than 2,000 adults and children are expected to attend.

o Wish It Were, winner of the $50,000 Dearly Precious Stakes for 3-year-old fillies June 30, breezed three furlongs in 35.00 on Friday, the best of 15 at the distance. Hills said he has not picked up out a spot yet for Wish It Were, but will keep the lightly-raced filly in stakes company.