08/06/2003 12:00AM

Haskell Day gives needed boost to soggy meet

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Haskell Day was a banner afternoon for New Jersey racing, and it came at an opportune time.

Monmouth Park smashed every attendance and handle record on Sunday. The presence of Kentucky Derby and Preak-ness winner Funny Cide and a welcome break from the recent rainy weather combined to produce a memorable day at the races.

The crowd of 53,638 was a record for any New Jersey track. The original Garden State Park held the old record of 51,077, set May 30, 1967.

Every betting mark tumbled. The total handle of $12,532,532 eclipsed the mark of $11,256,345 set in 2001, and the ontrack betting of $3,965,735 surpassed the record of $3,950,002 which had stood since 1968. Betting on the Haskell alone was $3,703,584 overall, which topped the former mark of $2,706,397 set in 2000.

For once this meet, everything fell neatly into place on Haskell Day.

"It was a success," said Bob Kulina, Monmouth's vice president. "The crowd was great. The weather, fortunately, cooperated. Operationally, things went smoothly."

Kulina said one big factor in reaching the record handle was that three of the four turf races were able to be run on the grass course, which was extremely soft.

The record-setting day was a welcome tonic for a meet plagued by too much rain, especially in May and June, and clouded by uncertainty over the future.

Horsemen and the track's management continue to wrangle over the racing schedule for this fall and for subsequent years. The expressed desire of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority to sell or lease its racing properties also has weighed heavily on a meet that was down 4 percent in total handle and attendance heading into Haskell weekend.

"This definitely helps," Kulina said. "I would like to think that when we add up all the numbers it will overcome all the rain, but it won't. At least it was a good day, and hopefully some of that success will carry over the next two months. We have a lot of meet left, and hopefully some of those first-time visitors will come back to again experience Monmouth Park."

The positive feelings of Haskell Day also reverberated on the backstretch.

"It was a terrific day for Monmouth Park," said John Forbes, a five-time leading trainer at the track. "It was absolutely brilliant. Between Funny Cide and the good weather, we had a turnout that track managers dream off.

"It came at a good time, with New Jersey racing facing a critical juncture."

Nine probable for Sapling

The Grade 3, $100,000 Sapling, Monmouth's top event for 2-year-olds, shapes up as a possible nine-horse affair on Saturday.

The list of probable runners includes the Dennis Manning-trained entry of Limit Free and Stringtown Wonder, as well as Charming Jim, Dashboard Drummer, Deputy Storm, Cactus Ridge, Pomeroy, and Old Kent Road.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas nominated four runners and is expected to run one from among Bustin' Out, Desert Patrol, Hasslefree, and Heroic Moment.

Hambletonian also has good day

The NJSEA also enjoyed a strong Saturday at The Meadowlands Racetrack for the Hambletonian.

The $1 million trotting stakes drew 29,120, the best turnout since 2000. Total handle of $8.4 million on the day was second only to the Standardbred-record $8.8 million bet on last year's Hambletonian card.

Total handle for Haskell and Hambletonian days exceeded $20 million.

The unique Hambletonian-Haskell double of Amigo Hall and Peace Rules returned $331.20.

Water Ski to take on winners

Water Ski steps up to face winners for the first time Friday in the $37,000 featured allowance for fillies and mares going one mile.

A 3-year-old chestnut daughter of Coronado's Quest, Water Ski scored a strong front-running maiden win in the slop going a mile and 70 yards at Monmouth on June 21.

She faces six rivals, including Noon Time Dancer, who debuts for leading owner Michael Gill. Noon Time Dancer was claimed from her victorious last race for $20,000.

* Uncledannysbrother, the even-money favorite, was scratched 10 minutes before the eighth race Wednesday. A thunderstorm rumbled through after the seventh race, and the stewards allowed the defection of the colt, who was returning after a 10-month layoff with a ligament injury.