08/20/2001 11:00PM

Monmouth '01 is oh so easy to love

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WASHINGTON - Even in the era of full-card simulcasting, a horseplayer may have trouble finding a single track that offers attractive betting fare.

As I decided where to focus my gambling efforts this summer, I would have preferred to play the races in Maryland, the circuit I know best. But the racing at Pimlico has been dismal. Purses have dropped after the loss of a state subsidy; many fields are too small and virtually devoid of interest. (On a rain-marred card Wednesday, 54 horses ran in the nine races, and only one winner paid more than 3-1.) Colonial Downs had larger fields, but the betting pools were too small to allow the possibility of a big score. Saratoga has superior racing, but too many wiseguys concentrate on it. For one reason or another, I rejected tracks from Delaware to Del Mar, until I found the one that has given me a summer's worth of enjoyment: Monmouth Park.

The quality of the competition and the size of the fields at Monmouth have been acceptable. Horses ship from the other Eastern tracks to Oceanport, N.J., so the races don't always consist of the same familiar faces. Miracle-working trainers don't dominate the game in Jersey as they do on so many other racing circuits, and I would rather analyze horses than their trainers and pharmacists. The Monmouth racing surface has been biased on many days - sometimes favoring horses on the rail, sometimes dooming them - and such conditions create opportunities for an observant handicapper. When a horseplayer does have a strong opinion, he can bet into substantial wagering pools.

But what is most striking about Monmouth Park in 2001 is the contrast to 2000. I paid a week's visit to the Jersey shore last summer and I have never been so bored at a racetrack. There were so many horrendous five-horse claiming races that I couldn't sit through an entire card. The regulars were grumbling, wagering was down, and even Bob Kulina, senior vice president for racing, conceded, "It was depressing."

The recent changes in New Jersey might give hope to other trouble-plagued racing states by showing that ailing racetracks can revive. The keys are money and politics.

New Jersey racing has been in dire straits for years, hurt by competition from Atlantic City's casinos and Delaware's slot machines. Everybody knew what the industry needed: legalized offtrack betting and telephone wagering. In 1998 voters approved a referendum to allow these innovations, and a committee appointed by Gov. Christie Whitman came out in favor of the changes. But the industry still had a big obstacle: itself. Thoroughbred and harness interests battled each other over the division of revenue, and then factions within Thoroughbred racing battled, preventing the passage of any legislation. New Jersey racing continued its decline: Atlantic City Race Track was moribund, Garden State was defunct, and Monmouth's product hit an all-time low.

But when the Thoroughbred factions finally ended their differences, they were rewarded by racing legislation that almost ensures a healthy future for the sport in New Jersey. The state's size and dense population should make offtrack betting immensely successful. To support the industry until the OTB's are up and running, New Jersey bestowed an $18 million purse supplement on its racetracks - $6.4 million went to Monmouth this summer.

Just as Pimlico has felt ill effects from its loss of a purse supplement as of July 1, Monmouth has verified the cliche that money makes the mare go. With the purses attractive, New York-based trainers such as John Kimmel and Todd Pletcher have sent divisions to Monmouth; out-of-state stables ship there frequently, for understandable reasons. A bottom-level allowance race carries a $37,000 purse. The comparable event at slot-rich Delaware Park is worth $32,000; at Pimlico, $26,000; at Philadelphia Park, $20,000. Of the tracks in the Northeast, only Saratoga is richer than Monmouth.

The high purse money has produced measurably more interest among fans - and more wagering. Attendance is up, and betting on Monmouth races by customers at the track has increased after years of steady decline. Out-of-state wagering on the Jersey races has increased, too.

"We're on a roll," said Kulina. "Wednesday our attendance was up 2,000 over the comparable day last year. We all knew the purse supplement would make a difference and give us the tools to be competitive, but what has happened has exceeded our expectations. We're back!"

(c)2001, The Washington Post