05/24/2004 11:00PM

Longer meet, higher purses

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Monmouth Park opens its 2004 season on Saturday afternoon with an extended schedule and a record purse structure of $320,000 per day as a result of a supplement from the state's casinos.

Monmouth had been slated to run its traditional schedule, from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. Under a recent agreement among all segments of the state racing industry, the Monmouth season will now run to Sept. 26.

The additional Monmouth dates had originally been allocated to The Meadowlands racetrack.

Monmouth raced into late September as an experiment last year with generally positive results.

Monmouth will continue to run into late September through 2006 under an agreement worked out among Thoroughbred and Standardbred horsemen and breeders and the racetracks. Monmouth will also tack on four additional weekend dates in May of 2005 and 2006.

Monmouth has not settled on a 2007 schedule. It hopes to host that year's Breeders' Cup and will adjust the schedule if awarded the championship races.

It took months of negotiations to conclude the comprehensive four-year pact, which covers schedules and purse distribution and ends years of fluctuating seasons and purses.

An $86 million supplement from the Atlantic City casinos will lift Monmouth purses to the highest levels in the resort track's 59-year history.

Monmouth's purses before Labor Day will rise to $325,000 daily in 2005, $330,000 in 2006 and $335,000 in 2007. Post-Labor Day purses at Monmouth will be $300,000 per day.

Monmouth paid $290,000 per day last season for the core summer meet and $260,000 in September.

The agreement will have a dramatic impact at The Meadowlands, where purses will average $300,000 for the life of the agreement. They were $190,000 last season.

The Meadowlands will run Oct. 1 to Nov. 13 under the revised schedule.

"This makes our purses more competitive, which is important in this region of the country," said Bruce Garland, the senior executive vice president of racing for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates Monmouth and The Meadowlands. "It stabilizes the industry, allowing us to make definite plans and it achieves peace within the industry in New Jersey."

Dennis Drazin, legislative council for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, praised Gov. Jim McGreevey for garnering casino support.

"He was the driving force behind $86 million that the casino industry will be pumping into our industry over the next four years," said Drazin.

The Atlantic City casinos also stand to gain under the agreement. The New Jersey tracks will not push for an expanded-gaming referendum in 2004 or 2005. That allows the casinos time to evaluate the potential impact of slot machines at racetracks in New York and possibly Pennsylvania.

The agreement will be made official next Tuesday when the sports and exhibition authority board signs it.

"Our board will sign on Tuesday an agreement with the Thoroughbred and harness horsemen and the breeders that will give us the foundation for what will be four successful years and beyond," said George Zoffinger, the president of the authority.