06/28/2010 12:00AM

Fireworks at Monmouth Park


On the July 3-5 extended holiday weekend, there will be dozens of stakes worth nearly $4 million scheduled for tracks from New York to California. But the best race of the holiday weekend probably is the $750,000 United Nations Stakes, to be run Saturday on the 19th racing program at Monmouth Park during its unique 2010 season, which features $50 million in purses during its 50 racing days.

The 1 3/8-mile U.N. has been won the past two years by one of its principal 2010 contenders, the front-running Presious Passion, who nearly won the 1 1/2-mile Breeders' Cup Turf end to end last fall. But it also will provide a follow-up forum for Winchester, the 5-year-old who only recently recovered the fine form he displayed winning the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington as a 3-year-old in 2008.

Winchester, a stretch-running son of Theatrical trained by Christophe Clement, narrowly upset his stablemate Gio Ponti in the Manhattan at Belmont on June 5. For those with short memories, Gio Ponti was a dual Eclipse Award winner last year, having won the Arlington Million and three other Grade 1 turf stakes before he finished second to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic on the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita.

While far from a two-horse race, the U.N. may provide a forum for the different running styles posed by the two likely favorites. While most turf races tend to be won by horses with a strong late kick, Monmouth's grass course this year has been decidedly favoring horses on or near the pace. Fact is, it was doing that last year and the year before, which is one reason why Presious Passion was able to take this race down in 2008 and 2009. It also might explain why Presious Passion lost a prep race for the U.N. as he conceded the early lead to the improving New York-bred Get Serious, who won the Grade 3 Monmouth Stakes wire to wire on June 12.

Others expected to make the U.N. field include Take The Points, a multiple Grade 1 grass stakes winner trained by Todd Pletcher who was fourth in the Manhattan; the Brazilian import Jeune Turc, who was a strong second Feb. 6 in a Group 1 stakes in Argentina, his only start of the year; and Chincon, a multiple Group 3-winning Irish-bred also making his American debut.

Beyond this high-profile stakes and the Salvator Mile on the same program, the Monmouth season has been an intriguing experiment to follow -- from a business point of view and a handicapping perspective.

Attendance and wagering have been up significantly when measured against any recent Monmouth season, but the per capita ontrack wagering has averaged well below $100 per person, a low figure. This, of course, suggests that new players have been in attendance, which is good, but these new players really do not know enough to bet more.

Typically, at a mature track, per capita wagering averages above $140 per person and sometimes much higher than that. The question remains open whether Monmouth has been able to educate its new players to interest them in repeat visits. Otherwise, the simulcast handle from out-of-state sources has gone up over last year and is mildly encouraging, if not completely satisfying, to those in New Jersey who hope this experiment leads to more Monmouth race meets with purses that can support quality racing.

Playing the game there has forced players to deal with a few important nuances of Monmouth racing, including one influenced by the increase in purses.

Horses that drop sharply in class -- say from competitive races in allowance company to $20,000 claiming -- cannot be dismissed cavalierly, not when the purse for the $20,000 claimer is $38,000 and may offset any possible loss at the claim box. A good example of that was Delaware allowance shipper Waltzing With Blue, who was dropped into a winning $20,000 claimer on the turf Sunday by high-percentage Delaware-based trainer Leigh Delacour, one of the best kept secrets on the Eastern Seaboard.

Moreover, players should take a close look at any speed-type shipping in from Philadelphia Park, where stalkers and closers tend to win more often than front-running types. Fact is, Monmouth's main dirt track has long been a speed-favoring surface and in 2010 has lived up to that billing.

Last Saturday and Sunday, for example, 14 of the 18 main-track races were won by a front-runner or by those who gained the lead from a stalking position entering the stretch.

Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, the grass course also has played strongly toward speed. Five of six turf winners on both days were either front-runners or were positioned close to the lead every step of the way.

Those short-term trends actually have been interrupted on a handful of days when the inside rail path was surprisingly deeper and slower than usual. Usually this occurs at Monmouth when the track is drying out after a rainstorm. But the pattern favoring speed nevertheless tends to repeat itself often enough -- especially during the summer -- so players must pay close attention to the way the races are being run from weekend to weekend. To assist you in keeping track of this, I strongly suggest consulting result charts for Monmouth.

As many predicted, New York-based nationally prominent trainers Todd Pletcher, Rick Dutrow, and Nick Zito have taken advantage of the ultra-rich purse structure and are competing for a meet title. Pletcher, with 10 wins through June 26, has been winning at a 20 percent clip. Dutrow also has 10 wins, and Zito has 7, while both are hovering around 33 percent.

These three high-profile trainers are not the only ones players should be ready to back: Kentucky-based Mike Maker has won with 6 of 11 starters, including three winners he claimed and won with right back; Mike Trombetta, has won 5 from 13 starters; Steve Klesaris, Juan Serey, Sharon Huston, Dominic Giglio, and John Forbes have won at least 30 percent from limited opportunities; and low-profile Steve Krebs certainly had Monmouth on his radar, clicking with 2 of his 3. There is money to be made at any race meet by focusing on trainers who win a high percentage of races from select few starters.

Jockey Joe Bravo, faced with greater competition from top-rated New York-based riders and several who left the West Coast to take advantage of the high purses at Monmouth this year, nevertheless still is the leading jockey as he has been in so many prior years.

Bravo had 24 wins through June 26, six more than Paco Lopez and Elvis Trujillo. Only Eibar Coa, Jeremy Rose, and Alan Garcia have been winning at a 20 percent or better clip, although John Velazquez is close at 19 percent, with 8 wins from 42 mounts. Stewart Elliot is 3 for 6 in his limited visits this season, all on the main track. Speaking of the main track, Jose Lezcano has been sensational, winning with 8 of his 25 main-track mounts, including several for Zito.

On the turf course, Bravo has eight wins and nine other in-the-money finishers from 28 rides, while Velazquez has won 4 of 12, Pablo Fragoso has won 4 of 13, and Coa has won 3 of 11.

Garrett Gomez, a nationally important jockey for most of this decade, has been a steady 15 percent to 18 percent winner at this meet in all situations. Nevertheless, Gomez has been severely overbet in numerous races aboard contenders that had no discernible edge. That fact, along with Bravo's consistent local success in the face of added competition, should alert all players that Monmouth requires appreciation for its nuances, especially in a year when well-meant horses, jockeys, and trainers are shipping in to get their share of $50 million in purses.