09/25/2003 11:00PM

Meet was far from a washout

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The weather-battered Monmouth Park season ends Sunday on a fairly positive note.

An exceptionally rainy summer on the Jersey Shore took a toll on every business in the area. At Monmouth, the showers bruised the business numbers as attendance and handle dipped. Given the elements, the damage was not as severe as it might have been.

"We all know about the weather this year," said Bob Kulina, the track's vice president and general manager. "The bottom line was that the core meet, with all factors considered, was a success."

The core meet covers the traditional Monmouth summer season of Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. In an experiment this year, Monmouth raced for four additional weeks in September.

Comparing the core meet of 2002 vs. 2003, attendance was virtually even. Monmouth averaged 9,803 in 2003, a decline of 36 patrons a day. A record crowd of 53,638 for Haskell Day helped the attendance figures.

"Haskell Day was spectacular," said Kulina. "We are hoping to get the Breeders' Cup here. The way the operation went, we proved beyond a doubt that we are more than capable of handling that type of crowd."

Ontrack handle dropped 5 percent to average $745,573. The simulcast export business fell almost 3 percent to $2,589,844.

The Haskell turnout was perhaps the year's most dramatic development, although the expansion of the season into September could have the most profound long-range impact.

The New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority transferred the September dates from The Meadowlands to Monmouth to gauge patron interest levels. The extra days, especially the weekends, exceeded expectations. Through Wednesday, with little promotional or advertising support, the cards drew an average of 4,874 fans who wagered $387,558. The simulcast exports averaged $1,867,209.

"They were slightly better than we anticipated," said Kulina. "We have to look at what Thoroughbred racing does for the NJSEA this year compared to last year."

The first New Jersey Thoroughbred Festival on Sept. 20 was the high point of the extended portion of the meet, with a crowd of 9,100 turning out for the all New Jersey-bred card.

"The festival will definitely become an annual event," said Kulina.

A major concern is the impact of the September dates on The Meadowlands. Shifting the September dates to Monmouth leaves The Meadowlands without live racing for two months. The harness meet there concluded Aug. 2; the track's Thoroughbred meet starts Thursday.

In terms of racing, the three major titles were decided long before September began, as Joe Bravo (jockey), Mark Shuman (trainer), and Michael Gill (owner) were runaway winners.

Bravo, healthy again after two injury-riddled years, bagged his ninth Monmouth title.

"More important than winning the title, it was nice to be back in the saddle," said Bravo. "To not be in the pain of the last two years was most important."

Bravo plans to ride at The Meadowlands on a limited basis. His primary focus of the fall will be riding at Belmont Park and Aqueduct with the goal of making contacts and building business for Gulfstream Park this winter.

"Having New York and New Jersey business in Florida will make me a lot stronger," said Bravo.

Shuman saddled the bulk of the Gill winners as each won his first Monmouth title.

The final card of the season on Sunday features the $50,000 Point Given Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles.

The race came up very deep with 12 runners, including Grade 3 Bay Shore winner Halo Homewrecker; Yo, a winner of four straight Pennsylvania-bred stakes; the promising New Jersey-bred Freedom's Honor; and Stockholder, who looks for a third straight win for trainer Bill Mott.