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A BRAND NEW BALLGAME?
The turbo-charged 2010 Monmouth Park meet - being dubbed "The Elite Meet" - features $50 million in purses, which is good news for owners, trainers, and jockeys. The added money figures to attract a high quality of racing, but it also means the handicapping puzzle just got a lot more complex. Dozens of new outfits from around the country, a handful of new jockeys, and a better class of racing mean the tried-and-true methods employed by New Jersey players may not work as well this season. We'll all have to adapt.
Over the last few years, we've become used to Joe Bravo's mounts offering odds at least a tick or two below fair value because he dominated here for so long. Jason Servis's horses making their first starts off a claim have deserved automatic consideration and usually mandatory inclusion on multi-race exotic tickets, since he has won at 48 percent (10 for 21) over the last three years with such runners. Jockey Felix Ortiz was annually good for a surprising score or runner-up finish on the turf at better than 30-1, usually on the lead. But now, against increased competition, will these trends continue?
We'll find out soon enough. But if after the first few weeks of the meet the handle is below expectations, it may be due to a feeling-out process by horseplayers, a group notoriously resistant to change.
OLD RIVALS STILL AT IT
Joey P. and Who's the Cowboy, who between them have won 25 races in Oceanport, are showing no signs of slowing down at the ripe old age of 8. Both will be in action early in the 2010 meet, probably in next Saturday's $100,000 John J. Reilly Handicap at six furlongs.
The two geldings, both sprinters, have met 13 times in their careers, all in six-furlong races at Monmouth. Amazingly, they have combined to win 11 of those races. Joey P. holds the advantage with eight wins; Who's the Cowboy has won three.
Both runners turned up on the local work tab this month. Who's the Cowboy went five furlongs and earned a bullet for his 1:00 flat work last Friday, and Joey P. breezed four furlongs in 48.80 earlier that week. Trainer Ben Perkins said he had hoped to work Joey P. on Tuesday, but steady rains caused him to scrap those plans.
"We'll get a good work into him before the Reilly," Perkins said.
Joey P. is 3 for 3 in the Reilly. He comes off a seventh-place finish in the Webb Snyder Stakes, a 4 1/2-furlong race at Charles Town, but Perkins said he considers the race a throw-out because a slow start cost him any chance.
"He had some tough luck there," he said. "He was rearing at the start, and that was that."
Perkins said Joey P. is "back to his old self" after he was out of action for much of 2009 following colic surgery.
"When he came back, it took a while to get him straightened out, but he's doing real well now," Perkins said.
So is Who's the Cowboy, who is looking to get off to a quick start in 2010. Last year, it took him a few months to get going - he was off the board in his first four starts of 2009 before improving enough to win an optional claimer with his usual late burst in his seventh start of the season. That was his only score of the year, but Gerald Sleeter, who owns the gelding, said he doesn't expect Who's the Cowboy to take that long to get rolling this time.
"We did a few things different with him this year," said Sleeter, who helps his son, Kevin, the trainer of record, run the family's stable of Thoroughbreds. "The first thing was we didn't give him all that much time off. Last year, we gave him too much time, and he got big and fat on us and it took a long time to get it off of him. He's doing good now."
Who's the Cowboy will run in the Reilly for the fifth consecutive year.
GETTING AGGRESSIVE ON TURF
With racing being conducted only three days a week this summer, the turf course at Monmouth Park should be able to host a few more races a day. That is, of course, if the weather cooperates.
But with more time to dry out, and with a plan to utilize the course's temporary rails more often, fans may see fewer races moved from the grass to the main track this year than in the past.
"Safety is, of course, always our first priority," said Bob Kulina, vice president and general manager of Monmouth Park. "We'll do anything we can to make sure there aren't horses getting hurt or jockeys getting hurt. With a 50-day meet, we can be more aggressive, though, in using the temporary rails, so we can be on the turf as much as we can."
Kulina cited the methods employed on Haskell Day, when there are five or more turf races scheduled. A few grass races are carded early, but the middle of the program features races on dirt. That gives the grounds crew time to put out the temporary rails, which creates new lanes and minimizes the wear and tear on the main part of the turf course. The fences can be placed 12, 24, or 36 feet out from the hedge.
"That's something we'll do more of," Kulina said.
If weather dictates that a race must come off the grass, every horse who remains in the field will receive a "special star," enabling them to get preference when entering in a subsequent turf race. With competition likely to be fierce around the entry box, and with the track distributing a part of the purse to all starters, Kulina said he is hoping to combat the problem of short fields in off-the-turf races by discouraging trainers from scratching their horses in such situations. Given the unpredictable summer weather in New Jersey, that could be one of the many keys to Monmouth Park meeting its goal of sharply boosting handle in 2010, since there will be many grass races scheduled this season.
HANDICAPPING ON THE WEB
Fans of Monmouth Park track handicapper Brad Thomas will see more of him this summer - if they go online.
Thomas will be providing videos and occasional tweets and blogs featuring his insights and opinions on live racing days at monmouthpark.com. In the past, Thomas would provide virtually all of the handicapping commentary between races on the Monmouth Park simulcast broadcast, but his job as the morning linemaker and his new workload mean that Mike Curci, longtime television host at Monmouth Park, will assume a little more of the handicapping duties on Fridays and Saturdays. Thomas will be more visible on the simulcasts on Sundays.
"I'm a guy who loves to have a pen and paper in hand myself, but in the modern world so many people use other mediums," said Thomas, who has worked in horse racing for more than 30 years. "I'm excited to have a chance to communicate with more people viewing and listening from a variety of different places."
THE BOTTOM LINE
The track spent $22 million on a Department of Environmental Protection project this winter, which included an upgrade and expansion of the infield lake, not for aesthetics but to address drainage and other issues. Asked what other capital improvements were made in the off-season, Kulina said, "Hopefully, the biggest improvement we've made will be seen on the racetrack."
HORSES TO WATCH
Caught In Action
Trainer: Kelly Breen
Last race: April 13, 6th (Philadelphia Park)
Finish: 2nd by 3 1/4
She got caught up in a race-long battle on the front end and had to settle for second for the fifth time in seven starts, but while she may have a touch of seconditis, she also has been game in defeat on several occasions, when she has been hurt by duels. The best Beyer Speed Figure of her short career came in her lone start at Monmouth Park, last year, when she made her seasonal debut after last racing in April.
Trainer: Butch Reid
Last race: March 21, 8th(Aqueduct)
Finish: 4th by 7 3/4
Unraced since March but training very well toward her return, and though she was sprinting when last seen, she also has won going long, which gives her trainer some options this season. She should be ready to run right off the bench, too, as she has won off the layoff a couple of times in the past, including in her first start of the season last May.