11/08/2005 12:00AM

Jock challenge funds will aid Katrina victims

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Horse racing has a long history of rallying to worthy causes, and that spirit will be evident again Thursday night at The Meadowlands Racetrack in the Katrina Invitational Jockey Challenge.

"Challenge" is a misnomer. No one will be keeping score. There is no trophy or monetary reward at the end of the evening.

A stellar lineup of jockeys will compete in four designated races, and all mount fees and commissions will be donated to the Racetrack Chaplaincy for distribution to Louisiana horsemen devastated by the hurricane that pummeled the Gulf Coast.

The Big M will donate $10,000 and hopes to raise an additional $10,000 through direct donations from local owners, horsemen, and fans.

The jockey lineup for the third, fourth, sixth, and seventh races includes Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux, Craig Perret, Joe Bravo, Mark Guidry, Edgar Prado, Eddie Martin Jr., Stewart Elliott, and Aaron Gryder.

The evening will resonate profoundly for Perret, who is back at The Meadowlands for the first time since the fall of 1996.

"It's going to be a fun time for the right reasons," Perret said. "There are a lot of people who need help, and when there's a disaster, everybody chips in."

Perret was a top stakes rider in New Jersey from 1976 to 1989 before shifting to New York and eventually Kentucky.

"I know a lot of the fans there," Perret said. "I lived there 14 years and I loved it. Part of me is still in New Jersey. My kids were born there."

Hurricane Katrina hit Perret hard. A New Orleans native, Perret was out of harm's way when the storm struck, but he lost contact with family members, who wound up scattered following evacuations.

"It wore me out for eight days," Perret said. "I couldn't reach anybody. They were evacuated to shelters, and when those went bad, they started shipping them different places."

Perret's family members wound up in Texas, Arkansas, and Florida. Some landed as far away as Kansas.

Perret, at his Kentucky farm, has hosted as many as 13 displaced relatives in his house.

"They are all fine health-wise, but most of them lost everything," Perret said. "How do they start over? I help them all that I can, but I'm at the bottom of the barrel. You do what you can do."

Perret said he was eager to help when Tad Dowd, who has done marketing for Desormeaux, came up with the idea for a fund-raiser. Dowd sold the concept to his cousin Dennis Dowd, the senior executive vice-president for racing at the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands.

"We have relatives in New Orleans," said Dennis Dowd. "We decided this was something we could do, and no one else had grabbed this particular initiative. While the NTRA has been very generous with its charity efforts, this was something we could do on a more intimate level."