05/09/2002 12:00AM

Look out Coa, Bravo's back

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Last year's ontrack rivalry between riders Joe Bravo and Eibar Coa at Monmouth Park came to abrupt end when Bravo was injured in a spill. The battle resumes on Saturday when the track opens its doors for its 2002 meet.

Bravo, a winner of eight Monmouth Park riding titles, suffered multiple leg fractures in the July 27 spill. At the time of the accident, Bravo led Coa by one winner. Coa went on to win his first Monmouth Park title and Bravo hung on for third, despite missing more than a month of the meet.

The injury to his leg was so severe that Bravo didn't make his comeback until March at Gulfstream Park.

Bravo, 30, is filled with enthusiasm for his return to Monmouth Park.

"I feel like a bug boy," Bravo said Thursday. "I'm more excited than I can remember about riding and getting back to my job."

Bravo said although no jockey wishes to be sidelined by injury, his time away from the track turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

"I had been doing the same thing for 15 years, day in and day out, and I was getting a little sour," Bravo said. "I feel super now and can't wait to ride at Monmouth because it's home for me."

Worms not asked back

Last year, Monmouth Park had to close its turf course for several days and limit turf racing for several weeks in July because of a bizarre infestation of army worms that also struck Saratoga Racecourse in upstate New York. This year, Monmouth officials do not expect the same problem. But who would?

"Hopefully, the worms were just a freak thing, but if it happens again, we'll know what to do with them," said Bob Kulina, Monmouth's vice president for racing. "We've got the pesticides and any other thing we need to take care of them."

Army worms - which are not worms at all, but caterpillars - are notorious in the Midwest for ruining corn and wheat fields, but they don't do much damage to grass except feed on chlorophyll, which is responsible for the turf course's green color and healthy appearance.

Despite the patchy brown appearance, Kulina said that the track suffered no long-term damage from the infestation, and this year, the course is in great shape.

"The turf course is fine," Kulina said. "It's green and healthy and we should have no problems."

Kulina said that one-third of the turf course was resodded in the off-season, including the parts that were most dramatically affected by the army worms.

Monmouth has scheduled no turf races for opening weekend, and Kulina said turf racing won't get into high gear until Memorial Day, May 27. Two Thoroughbred turf races will be run at the Meadowlands on both May 15 and May 16, as part of an experimental Thoroughbred-harness card at that track.

Telephone betting won't be ready till October

Monmouth officials say they are currently working as quickly as possible to get an account-wagering operation up and running in the state. Despite the efforts, telephone and internet betting probably won't be available until late October, the officials said this week.

Account wagering was legalized last year as part of a bill that also legalized off-track betting. But officials got a late start on the planning because of a dispute with horsemen over racing dates that would have jeopardized the establishment of both systems.

According to Monmouth senior vice president Bruce Garland, track officials are currently trying to sign other tracks in New Jersey to an account-wagering participation agreement, which is required by law. After the agreement is signed, Monmouth can go about creating its own account-wagering system or contract with another operator, Garland said.

"We're trying to do this the fastest way possible, and we're still hopeful we can do something before the Breeders' Cup" on Oct. 26, Garland said.

Hal Handel, the chief executive officer of Philadelphia Park - which also owns Freehold Raceway, a harness track in New Jersey - said on Thursday that "discussions have begun in earnest" about Philadelphia Park operating the account-wagering system. Philadelphia already owns and operates Phonebet, a successful telephone and Internet betting system.

* At a ceremony on opening day at the track, Point Given will be inducted into Monmouth Park's Hall of Champions. Point Given won last year's Haskell Invitational and was later named Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old. Point Given joins, among others, John Henry, Kelso, Nashua, and Forego in Monmouth Park's Hall of Champions.

* There are several new facilities awaiting fans on opening day, including the a new simulcast facility on the second floor of the clubhouse and a bandstand for weekend entertainment, located behind the grandstand. A modernized cooling and heating system, which Monmouth Park officials said cost nearly $9 million, also has been installed.

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty