05/11/2006 12:00AM

Extensive facelift includes new turf

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Bill Denver / EQUI-PHOTOS
Monmouth Park's newly installed turf course, which includes this chute for 1 1/8-mile races, isn't expected to be ready for racing until late June.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Monmouth Park, the queen of New Jersey racetracks, opens for the 61st season on Saturday.

With the Breeders' Cup coming in 2007, the old girl is getting an extensive facelift.

Renovations will continue throughout the meet, which runs through Sept. 24. First post for the 11-race card will be 12:50 p.m. Eastern, a change from the 1:15 p.m. start time last year.

All told, about $30 million will be invested in getting the track ready for the eight championship races.

"The Breeders' Cup gave us the ability to go to the state and say 'We need money to fix Monmouth Park,' " said Dennis Dowd, the senior vice president of racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. "We need to make it a gem to host the world's premier

racing event. The state stepped up to the plate."

Some of the improvements were projects that needed to be done anyway, such as fresh carpeting in the restaurants, new roofs on backstretch barns, and gallons of paint to spruce up the plant.

The most spectacular change is the installation of a new turf course.

The old course, after 30 years of service, was a burnt-out brown patch at the end of last year's meet.

Construction of the new course began in the fall but fell behind schedule during an exceptionally rainy October, dashing hopes of having the new sod laid by November. About half the course was down when the frost hit; the remainder was installed this spring.

The original schedule had the course ready for start of this season. The debut has been pushed back until June 24.

Visually, the new course is stunning. Racing fans will be treated to a lush sea of untrammeled emerald green. The rebuilt course will have two chutes, the traditional 1 1/8 mile-chute that joins the course in midstretch and a new 5 1/2-furlong chute for the always-popular grass sprints.

The turf renovation was supervised by Dr. Jim Murphy, the specialist in turf grass management at the Rutgers University cooperative research extension in New Brunswick, N.J.

Murphy predicts the course will be much more consistent and less vulnerable to the elements.

"There will still be wet days that inhibit racing," Murphy said. "There should be far fewer of those days where racing is restricted. It will drain a lot better."

With no grass racing available until late June, Monmouth switched three days to The Meadowlands Racetrack. The all-turf cards will take place on three Mondays: June 5, 12, and 19.

The stakes highlights, as usual, are the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational for 3-year-olds on Aug. 6, the Grade 1, $750,000 United Nations on the turf on July 8, and the Grade 2, $300,000 Molly Pitcher Breeders' Cup for fillies and mares on Aug. 27.

The opening day feature is the $60,000 Red Cross Stakes for fillies and mares at 5 1/2 furlongs. The race office coaxed 102 entrants for Saturday's 11-race card.

Purse money will be a record $330,000 a day.

The Choose Six makes its Monmouth debut Saturday. The $1 wager, which replaces the traditional pick six, lets the bettor select any six races on the card. The choose six was introduced in New Jersey last month at The Meadowlands harness meet and is available only to ontrack bettors at Monmouth, The Meadowlands, and Freehold Raceway.

Meet highlights

DATERACE (Grade)PURSE
July 8United Nations (G1)$750,000
Aug. 6Haskell Invitational (G1)1,000,000
Aug. 19Philip H. Iselin B.C. (G3)250,000
Aug. 27Molly Pitcher B.C. (G2)300,000