05/09/2007 11:00PM

Centeno riding higher


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Jockey Daniel Centeno will be taking the next step in an already remarkable year when he tries his luck at the Monmouth Park meeting that opens Saturday. Centeno won a record 124 races at the recently concluded Tampa Bay Downs meet despite missing several weeks to ride at Gulfstream Park.

"I was thinking before of going to a bigger track," Centeno said. "I was waiting for that call from a good agent or for someone to say, 'I want to bring that jockey here.' "

Centeno, who has been riding primarily in Florida, will take the swing with Danny Mellul, Joe Bravo's longtime agent until they split last year, booking the mounts.

"I did so good in Tampa," Centeno said, "I know that I can ride good horses, and I wanted to ride better horses. There are a lot of good riders here. I will try to do the best I can with my horses."

Centeno, a 35-year-old from Venezuela, has been riding for 18 years. Trainers appreciate his experience and horsemanship.

"This kid seems to be a very good rider," said Joe Orseno. "I like him as a person, the way he handles himself. I like that he can get off a horse and actually tell you something. He's very knowledgeable about things going on, like equipment changes."

Orseno named Centeno to ride Slam Bammy in the $60,000 Decathlon Stakes, the opening-day feature on Saturday.

Centeno feels his strength is handling speed horses - an important asset at Monmouth.

"I can ride from behind but, right now, I have very good hands when I take the lead," he said

New cushion results in fast times

The most dramatic change during the a busy off-season at Monmouth was the installation of a new cushion on the main track.

The new dirt surface has gotten generally positive reviews from trainers - despite producing very fast workout times.

"I think it's just a tick too fast," said trainer Ben Perkins Jr. "They need to fine-tune it a little bit. The material seems good and there is a lot of bounce to it."

Kelly Breen, the leading trainer here the last two years, gallops many of the horses in his barn over the track every morning.

"The track is fast but horses seem to bounce back from it," Breen said on Thursday. "I had Meadow Blue work in 58.80 on Tuesday. It didn't slow him down. It didn't sting him. He went back to the track today, happy as ever."

Park Avenue Ball breezes fast

Park Avenue Ball, one of the star performers here last summer, will likely see action soon at Monmouth.

A 5-year-old New Jersey-bred, Park Avenue Ball worked five furlongs in 59 seconds Wednesday, the fastest of the 16 works at the distance.

Park Avenue Ball last ran at Gulfstream Park, finishing fourth in the Artax Stakes. He was entered in the Westchester Handicap, the opening-day feature at Belmont Park, but trainer Jim Ryerson scratched him.

Ryerson hopes to have Park Avenue Ball back in action by the Memorial Day weekend.

With the Breeders' Cup at Monmouth this fall, Ryerson has set his sights on the first $1 million Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, to be run at a mile and 70 yards because of Monmouth's configuration.

Park Avenue Ball won three stakes here last year, including the Grade 3 Iselin Handicap. He also ran second to Grade 1 winner Flower Alley in the Salvator Mile.

Ryerson has ruled out a return in the 1 1/8-mile Iselin because he wants Park Avenue Ball running a mile or less. "I'm not sure what direction we'll go in," he said. "We'll let the summer decide. He's a good two-turn miler. Hopefully he'll be healthy and ready to run in the fall."