05/07/2008 12:00AM

Jersey Shore feel is back as new meet opens


OCEANPORT, N.J. - The temporary seats and bleachers are gone. The tents have been packed away. Monmouth Park is back to normal as it prepares to open Friday for the first card since hosting the Breeders' Cup in October.

Also missing is the palpable tension and anxiety that filtered through last season as Monmouth strained to finish a major overhaul of the grandstand, clubhouse, and backstretch in time for the Breeders' Cup.

"It's a relaxed atmosphere now," said trainer Greg Sacco. "Last year was tense, leading up to the Cup, in a good way. Everybody was a little uptight. I knew I had to move out of my barn at some point, so I was upset from day one."

A more tranquil summer season on the Jersey Shore gets under way at 12:50 p.m. Friday with the first of 99 programs through Sept. 28.

Monmouth will race Fridays through Sundays for the first three weekends, as well as Memorial Day, May 26. The five-day race week - Wednesdays through Sundays - starts May 29.

Now, horsemen and fans will fully reap the benefits of the Breeders' Cup. In the Cup aftermath, Monmouth has a new dirt track, a rebuilt turf course, renovated barns, a new Breeders' Cup Park for the public on what was once the jockeys' swimming pool, an upgraded cafeteria overlooking the main entrance, and an enlarged picnic area.

"It's a great time because of the residual of the all the great things we did," said Monmouth's senior executive vice president of racing, Dennis Dowd. "All of the work that was done is now to be enjoyed. Last year, there was so much anticipation of the Breeders' Cup. This year, we just anticipate good, solid racing."

The new meet has purse money to offer, $330,000 a day, the same as last year, thanks to another three-year renewal of a $90 million subsidy from the Atlantic City casinos in exchange for a continued ban on slot machines or video lottery terminals at the state's racetracks.

The continued purse support helped attract several new horsemen to Monmouth this summer, including Barclay Tagg and Anthony Dutrow, who will have divisions here, and Steve DiMauro, A. Ferris Allen, and Giuseppe Iadisernia.

One major missing element as the meet begins: simulcasts from Belmont Park. Monmouth is part of a regional cooperative that has been unable to finalize a contract with the New York Racing Association for the Belmont feed. As of Wednesday afternoon, no deal has been reached.

"We have been working diligently on both sides to narrow the gap," Dowd said. "I am guardedly optimistic that a settlement is days away, perhaps even less. The Belmont signal is important to us."

The opening-day feature, the $70,000 Red Cross Stakes for filly and mare sprinters, is the comeback spot for Talkin About Love, one of the top runners here last summer.

The New Jersey-bred 4-year-old homebred reeled off five straight wins here for trainer Kevin Sleeter, advancing from the statebred ranks to capture the Grade 3 Monmouth Oaks.

She finished the season with a pair of thirds in the Grade 2 Fitz Dixon Cotillion at Philadelphia Park and in the Inside Information Stakes over a sloppy Monmouth track on the Friday Breeders' Cup undercard.

"I'm not running her in the slop," said Sleeter, with an eye on forecasts calling for a cool, rainy opening day. "She will not pick her feet up in the slop."

Like all the Sleeter horses, Talkin About Love was turned out when the New Jersey racing season concluded at the Meadowlands.

"She needs a race, mentally and physically" Sleeter said. "She wintered well. She's a little chunky, yet."

The six-furlong race also attracted Sheets, winner of last year's Grade 3 Azalea Stakes at Calder, and the speedy Pure Disco, a New Jersey-bred who also ran well against open company, including three straight overnight stakes to close out last season.