08/18/2002 11:00PM

A messy surface switch

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The betting public and trainers at Monmouth Park were left in confusion Sunday when negotiations between jockeys and track officials about the safety of the turf course led to two turf stakes being switched to the main track. The changes occurred after trainers were arriving at the paddock with their horses for the sixth race and pick four players had already purchased their tickets for the multi-race bet that began a race earlier.

According to jockey spokesman Eddie King, the turf course, with the rail at the hedge, was unsafe dating back to Haskell Day, Aug. 4, when the riders notified track officials of a soft spot at the top of the lane. King said the soft spot may have been caused by a huge storm two days before the Haskell, and he said jockeys decided to ride the turf course because Haskell Day is the premier day of the meet. Although the soft spot was fixed, continued turf racing chewed it up, and the issue resurfaced last Thursday.

Director of facilities Robert Juliano, in charge of the turf course, said last Thursday was the first day he was notified of the soft spot on the turf course.

King said the jockeys did not want to ride on the grass last Thursday, after notifying track officials of the soft spots on the course, which eventually led to the sixth race on the turf being pulled.

Juliano said he probed the Lennox turf course (rail out 30 feet) last Friday morning and concluded that the course was chewed up in certain spots because the course had been used to its fullest in the cycle, before switching the rail to 10 feet out. "I didn't think it had to do with the storm Aug. 2," Juliano said. "It was never brought to my attention until Thursday."

While turf racing was conducted on Friday, the turf course, with the rail at the hedge, was deemed unsafe Saturday when jockey Chuck Lopez had a spill in the eighth race. Lopez said his mount, Szep, did not clip heels, but slipped in the soft area at the top of the lane.

"I've been riding for 23 years and I know what it feels like to clip heels," Lopez said Monday. "My horse bobbled first and got stuck. He was trying to get out of the turf but his rear end couldn't keep up."

Stewards, track officials, and jockeys watched the replay of Lopez's race on Sunday morning. According to King, the jockeys were unanimous that Lopez's mount slipped, but the stewards believed Lopez's mount clipped heels. King said the jockeys decided to ride the first turf race (fourth race), as an experiment, to see if the course was safe. Track management tried to fix the soft spot at the top of the lane with a steel roller, Juliano said.

With track officials knowing a decision would be made after the fourth race, Juliano spoke with King after he rode Sport d'Hiver to victory in the five-furlong turf race. While accounts somewhat differ, King told Juliano after the race that the turf course was fine from his standpoint, but he would have to speak with the rest of the jockeys who rode behind him in the race. After having a meeting, King said the other riders in the race deemed the turf course unsafe, and they unanimously decided to notify track officials of the decision. They told state steward Harvey Wardell, who happened to be in the jockeys' room at the time, and Wardell said he contacted Monmouth's general manager, Robert Kulina.

King said the decision by the jockeys was made 15 minutes before the fifth race, when wagering on the pick four started. After that, though, track officials were in discussions with King and other jockeys to try to convince them to ride, King said. Kulina said he was on the phone with King while the fifth race was loading and then started.

The switch to the main track was made after the fifth race, yet no reason was given to the betting public, and those who handicapped the turf for their pick four wagers were left with nonrefundable tickets. Trainers were already saddling their horses in the paddock before the race, the Continental Mile Stakes, and were equally upset, since many equipped their horses with bandages and shoes suited for turf racing.

Trainer John Salzman, who shipped in My Boy Kyle from Maryland for the race on the turf, said, "It's not kosher, the whole deal," he said. "We should've had the opportunity to scratch."

Owner Randy Brooks agreed. "We wouldn't have shipped to run on the dirt," he said.

Turf races were switched to the main track Monday and also will be moved to the dirt Wednesday. While King said the "deep bog" at the top of the lane is the worst part, he said there are other soft spots on the course.

Juliano said maintenance workers are doing many things to try and fix the problem.

"We're spot-seeding the areas to filling in divots, and waiting to see if the area dries up," he said. "We won't roll it or it will get too hard."

A rule initiated in June by the late Basil Plasteras, member of the New Jersey Racing Commission, would prevent this situation from happening. The law was passed in June, but the waiting period designates that it will be signed into law two to three weeks from now. The rule states that if turf races come off the grass after betting is closed on multi-race wagers, without the public being notified, then those races will be declared no contest.