07/07/2004 12:00AM

Five weeks into meeting, numbers look strong


OCEANPORT, N.J. - The July Fourth holiday, Haskell Day (Aug. 8 this year), and Labor Day are points of call in the course of a Monmouth Park meet.

With the meet having just passed the first "pole," the business report paints a very positive picture.

Compared with last year, Monmouth has posted solid increases in three major categories - attendance, ontrack handle, and total handle, which includes betting on Monmouth at all simulcast outlets.

Attendance is up 16 percent for an average of 10,288 through the first 27 cards, ending Monday. The larger crowds lifted the ontrack handle 17 percent to $818,131. Total betting on Monmouth, including all simulcast outlets, has improved 8.6 percent to $3.2 million.

Weather played a major factor. The Jersey Shore was inundated with rain in June 2003, while showers have been scarce this meet.

"We're pleased," said Bob Kulina, vice president of Thoroughbred racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. "We started off with a purse supplement, the strong possibility of a Breeders' Cup [in 2007], and then threw in some really strong weather. Things have been really good."

Kulina believes the momentum can carry through this meet and beyond.

"There is a feeling of optimism that there is a future for New Jersey racing," Kulina said. "Everybody is very positive, and hopefully this is the beginning of a growth era for the second half of this decade."

The only major negative was light turnout for the United Nations on July 3. The Grade 1 race attracted a strong field with ideal weather, yet drew only 10,326.

"That was as great a U.N. as we've run at Monmouth Park," said Kulina. "We've got to figure out how to make that a bigger day. That race has room to grow as an event."

Stakes at Colonial may deplete Eatontown

The Eatontown Handicap, the Saturday feature at Monmouth Park, faces stiff competition from a similar event at Colonial Downs.

That is good news for owners and trainers weighing their options. It puts the competing race offices in a tough spot as they try to stage the best possible contests at their tracks.

Colonial offers a higher purse and a longer race.

The Grade 3, $100,000 Eatontown is 1 1/16 miles for fillies and mares on the turf. Colonial offers the Grade 3, $150,000 All Along Breeders' Cup Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf at 1 1/8 miles.

With the talent potentially divided, trainer Tim Hills sees an opportunity for Lojo in the Eatontown. "There are enough races around that everybody is kind of spread out," said Hills. "We're hoping to hit the board and possibly win."

In her last two, Lojo had the misfortune of running into the red-hot Snowdrops, a winner of four straight. Lojo finished fifth to Snowdrops in an allowance race at Belmont Park and, most recently, was third to her in Monmouth's Politely Stakes on June 20.

"She didn't switch leads in the stretch in the last race," said Hills. "We found something that we think will help her. We did some chiropractic work."

Hills would love to see Lojo, a 5-year-old mare, score a black-type victory. Lojo came closest in the Grade 3 Athenia Handicap at Aqueduct last November, where she missed by a nose.

Lojo carries 116 pounds for the Eatontown.

The Monmouth race office remained optimistic that the four highweights will run: Ocean Drive (120 pounds), Snowdrops (119), Fast Cookie (118), and High Court (118).

One feature on turf, one on dirt

A $41,000 allowance race for Friday was listed in the condition book for one mile on the turf, with one mile on the main track as an alternate distance. The race proved so popular that it will go on both surfaces as co-features.

Hotstufanthensome should be tough in the turf split, the seventh race. Hotstufanthensome has a win and two seconds since shifting to the grass for trainer Norman Pointer. "Night and day" was the way Pointer described the improvement after the surface switch.

Hotstufanthensome got free too late and settled for second in his latest, a similar Monmouth allowance, as the 9-5 favorite.

Choctaw Charlie, a drawing-away winner in his last race, will be a key contender in the dirt division, the eighth race.