05/11/2005 12:00AM

Monmouth opening early


OCEANPORT, N.J. - The breeze blowing in from the nearby Atlantic Ocean will have a chillier bite and sweaters will probably outnumber tank tops by a wide margin when Monmouth Park reopens Saturday.

Monmouth will abandon the traditional Memorial Day weekend opener for an early launch of the New Jersey Thoroughbred season.

Like the first buds of the season, the return of racing to the Jersey shore stirs feelings of optimism.

Horsemen have reason to look ahead expectantly to record daily purses of $325,000, thanks to last year's supplement agreement with the Atlantic City casinos.

Fans will start to reap the benefits of up to $17 million in renovations and restorations to spruce up the facility for the 2007 Breeders' Cup. Major projects include installation of a new turf course this fall and reopening of the dormant patio terrace overlooking the clubhouse turn.

"We focus on the Breeders' Cup that's coming soon, but not just the Breeders' Cup," said senior vice president of racing Dennis Dowd. "We have used that focus to do things that should have been done in the past, but will be done now and in the future."

The track operates on Saturday and Sunday for the first two weeks of a meet that runs through Sept. 25. It got those dates by giving up some Wednesdays in the fall.

Monmouth offers three days of racing - Saturday through Monday - over the Memorial Day weekend.

A risk exists that the early opening will hurt business on the Memorial Day weekend, a key draw of the meet.

"We tried this two or three years ago, and there was a slight impact," vice president and general manager Bob Kulina said. "Overall, it was a positive. I think we'll have upwards of 15,000 people Saturday. I'll trade that for a Wednesday in September any day."

Monmouth resumes a full Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule on June 2.

Fans need to adjust clocks as well as calendars. Post time shifts to 1:15 p.m. Delaying first post 20 minutes repositions Monmouth into a better simulcast slot, said Kulina. With Belmont Park starting at 1 p.m., Monmouth will avoid many race-to-race conflicts.

The jockey colony will be one of the strongest in recent years with the return of Aaron Gryder to challenge 10-time champion Joe Bravo. Gryder, who rode in New York most recently, was runner-up to Bravo in 1991 and 1992.