05/06/2009 11:00PM

Fighting recession with dime supers

Bill Denver/Equiphotos
Trainer Derek Ryan intends to point locally based Musket Man to the Haskell on Aug. 2.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Signs of spring are sprouting everywhere for racing fans in the Mid-Atlantic region. The forsythia are in bloom, the Triple Crown is under way, and Monmouth Park is about to awake from its winter slumber.

Monmouth, the queen of New Jersey racetracks, kicks off its 64th season Saturday with an 11-race card. First post is 12:50 p.m. Eastern for the first of 94 dates through Sept. 27.

The start of a fresh season brings a sense of renewal in all sports, and racing is no exception. But there are serious financial headwinds - local, regional, and national economies struggling to regain their footing.

"In these uncertain economic times, with people curtailing travel plans, a nearby destination like Monmouth Park is a valuable asset for the state," said Dennis Robinson, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns Monmouth and the Meadowlands Racetrack.

In these recessionary times, Monmouth will offer bettors a low-cost alternative: 10-cent superfectas on every race.

Monmouth, fortunately, is buffered from some of the negative trends - thanks to a three-year agreement with the Atlantic City casino industry in which the participating tracks forgo lobbying efforts for alternative gaming in exchange for purse subsidies. As a result, Monmouth will increase purses for the upcoming meet. Overnight purses will rise $10,000 a day to average $315,000 for the second year of the subsidy agreement. An additional $500,000 has been added to the stakes program.

The enhanced purse money attracted a number of stables to the Jersey Shore for the first time, including Kiaran McLaughlin, Tom Albertrani, David Fawkes, Bruce Brown, and Wesley Ward.

"We'll see a couple of hundred new horses here," said vice president and general manager Bob Kulina. "That's very positive. From a racing perspective, there are a lot of good things going on."

One of those could be restoration of the Monmouth County Hunt meet, five steeplechase races to be combined with five flat races on a closing weekend card.

"We are in preliminary negotiations and think we'll accomplish it," Kulina said. "I think it's an event that can grow and be a positive attraction in Monmouth County in September."

The state's two Grade 1 races are the high points of the meet: the $750,000 United Nations Stakes on the turf on July 4 and the $1 million Haskell Invitational for 3-year-olds on Aug. 2.

For the first time since it moved to Monmouth from Atlantic City Race Course in 1999, the U.N. will have a major prep: the $200,000 Monmouth Stakes on June 13.

The Monmouth Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile turf race, debuted last fall and was the triumphant final race for Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Haskell winner Big Brown before his retirement due to a hoof injury. Moving the Monmouth Stakes to this earlier position creates a stepping-stone to the 1 3/8-mile U.N.

The Haskell annually attracts many of the leaders in the division while anchoring New Jersey's biggest racing day. It is the long-range goal for Musket Man, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby who will summer here with trainer Derek Ryan.

Musket Man will run in the Preakness, Ryan said, then start looking toward the Haskell.

"He'll get a good break and we'll point him to the Haskell," Ryan said.

Musket Man, along with West Side Bernie (ninth in the Derby) and Atomic Rain (16th), all trained at Monmouth last summer.

The $70,000 Decathlon Stakes at six furlongs is the opening-day feature. It will also mark the 31st appearance here, and first of 2009, for Who's the Cowboy. A 7-year-old New Jersey-bred gelding, Who's the Cowboy has earned more than $700,000 at Monmouth.

"He's probably as good as I can get him without getting a race under his belt," said owner Gerry Sleeter. "Some years he has needed a race. Sometimes he comes out running."