05/11/2005 11:00PM

Decathlon gets meet started, 2 weeks early

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - All aboard! Monmouth Park sails early this year.

The summer racing season on the Jersey Shore gets under way Saturday afternoon with an 11-race card. Post time will be 1:15 p.m. for the first program of the 90-day meet, which runs through Sept. 25.

A deeper jockey colony and an influx of new and returning stables should produce an interesting season.

Joe Bravo, Monmouth's leading rider a record 10 times, returns to find a roster bolstered by the return of Aaron Gryder, who was runner-up to Bravo in 1991 and 1992. They figure to finish among the leaders in a solid group that includes Eibar Coa, Stewart Elliott, Jose Velez Jr., Chuckie Lopez, and Eddie King.

On the training side, Tim Hills returns to defend his title with fresh runners.

"I'm relentlessly upgrading my stock," Hills said. "I bought a bunch of yearlings last fall, and I've been buying 2-year-olds this spring. We'll be ready."

Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and John Kimmel return this year, while Lynne Scace and Kirk Ziadie, two of the leading trainers at Tampa Bay Downs, make their Monmouth debuts.

Other new outfits include John Hennig, Stanley Hough, Bruce Alexander, and Ben Feliciano.

The track traditionally opens on Memorial Day weekend, but Monmouth gave up some Wednesday cards in the fall so it could add two extra weekends in the spring.

The opening-day card features the $65,000 Decathlon Stakes at six furlongs. Based on class, Abbondanza will be tough, as he finished his 2004 campaign in two challenging spots.

He set the early pace before fading to 11th in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and closed out the season by finishing seventh in the Grade 1 De Francis Memorial Dash at Pimlico on Nov. 20.

"This will be a little easier," trainer Tim Tullock Jr. said in a major understatement.

Owned by Germania Farm, Abbondanza has been training like a horse eager to get back to racing. He turned in bullet works in his final two drills at Laurel Park, the most recent a five-furlong work in 1:10.40 last Saturday.

"He's been working really well," Tullock said. "I was hoping to bring him back in an allowance race, but nothing worked out."

Abbondanza had a solid season last year with four wins, including a pair of $100,000 stakes victories - the Hirsch Jacobs at Pimlico and the Gallant Bob Handicap at Philadelphia Park.

The late-season thrust into Grade 1 stakes was pushing the envelope.

"We needed to do one of the two," Tullock said, "not both."

Refreshed and ready, Abbondanza meets an old nemesis in War's Prospect.

Abbondanza made one start at Monmouth last summer, losing by a half-length to War's Prospect in the Rumson Stakes on Aug. 14.

War's Prospect has a slight edge in Saturday's rematch in that he has already run this year, a fourth-place finish in an allowance race at Philadelphia Park on March 29.

A New Jersey-bred gelding, War's Prospect underwent offseason surgery to remove chips from both knees and has returned in solid form, according to trainer Bill Anderson.

"He's come back really well," he said. "He's training better this year than he did last year."

War's Prospect, 4, also turned in a bullet drill in preparation for this race, going five furlongs in 58.60 at Philadelphia Park on May 3.

"He filled out a lot and matured," Anderson said.

Anderson plans to run back War's Prospect in two weeks in the $60,000 John J. Reilly Handicap against New Jersey-breds.

At a glance: Monmouth Park

RACING SCHEDULE: 90 days; Saturday through Sept. 25: open May 14 and 15, 21 and 22, and May 28, 29 and 30; dark Mondays and Tuesdays in June, July, and August; dark Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays in September; closed Wednesday, June 1, and open on Monday, July 4, and Monday, Sept. 5.

POST TIME: 1:15 p.m. Eastern; 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 7.

HIGHLIGHTS:

DateRacePurse
July 2United Nations (G1)$750,000
July 9Molly Pitcher BC (G2)300,000
Aug. 7Haskell invitational (G1)1,000,000
Aug. 14Monmouth BC Oaks (G3)200,000
Aug. 28Iselin BC Handicap (G3)250,000

ADMISSIONS: Grandstand, $2; clubhouse $4.

SEATING: Reserved (grandstand and clubhouse), $2; box seats, $3. Children age 12 and under admitted free; senior citizens (55 and up), half price.

PARKING: General, free; grandstand preferred, $2; clubhouse preferred, $3; valet, $5.

LOCATION: Garden State Parkway Exit 105 to Route 36 East.

SIMULCASTING: Daily.

PHONE: (732) 222-5100

INTERNET: www.monmouthpark.com