05/22/2003 12:00AM

Longer season poses challenges

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When Monmouth Park wrapped up its 78-day meet last year with a 10 percent drop in handle and 8 percent decline in attendance, Monmouth officials immediately went on the offensive. The cause for the drop, the officials said, was plain and simple: The Monmouth meet was too long.

This year, however, Monmouth will run 92 days, 14 more than last year, after track officials reached an agreement with horsemen to strip 21 live racing days from the state's calendar by cutting the meet at Monmouth's sister track, The Meadowlands, by more than 50 percent. Both Monmouth and the Meadowlands are owned and operated by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

Monmouth officials admit that they are somewhat apprehensive about the length of the Monmouth meet this year. But they said it was more important to cut the racing season to 120 days than insist on taking days from Monmouth, which is where horsemen prefer to race and stable.

In the hopes of attracting more horses to Monmouth's races, the authority has guaranteed horsemen that overnight purses will be at least $300,000 a day through Sept. 1, even if the track has to dig into its own pockets. But if the betting handle does not live up to expectations, purses could be slashed for the last month of the meet, which runs until Sept. 28.

Kulina said that the track will not generate the revenue from handle to support the $300,000-a-day figure based on last year's numbers. He said a number of side agreements with horsemen would allow the track to pump money into purses from savings on operations. That includes not opening The Meadowlands for training during the year.

Dennis Drazin, the legislative counsel for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said that horsemen overwhelmingly supported having more days at Monmouth.

"The horsemen are very happy to have the extended season," Drazin said on Thursday. "It's something we've been asking for for years."

Drazin said horsemen are considering a number of initiatives to encourage full fields, including the use of bonus money to reward trainers and owners who run the most horses during the meet. Field size is one of the primary determinants of race handle, and handle generates the money for purses.

Still behind the times

New Jersey's problems do not end at the extended meet. The state is one of the few major racing jurisdictions in which neither offtrack betting nor telephone or Internet wagering have been implemented. Critics have blamed the state's problems in part on the inability of horseplayers to bet anywhere else but at the state's few racetracks (other than casinos in Atlantic City).

Making things worse for Jersey horseplayers, OTB's and phone betting were legalized two years ago. But the same law requires New Jersey tracks to run 141 live racing days in order to take offtrack bets, meaning no OTB betting or phone wagering can take place until the law is changed. Horsemen and track officials said they will work together to change the law this year.

Horsemen and the track are also cooperating on a new event for Sept. 20 that would be modeled along the lines of the statebred championship days that have been put into place in many other states. The event, possibly called "Jersey Jamboree" or "Jersey Fresh," would include two or three stakes races and Jersey-bred restricted 2-year-old races, allowances, and starter handicaps, according to Kulina.

Off the track, the talk in New Jersey surrounds the authority's announcement earlier this year that it was exploring the possibility of selling both Monmouth and The Meadowlands. While authority officials said no decision has been made, local politicians were organizing a demonstration for Friday to oppose the plan on the grounds that the tracks are better controlled by the state than outside companies.