09/25/2005 11:00PM

Monmouth's handle drops

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Handle figures suffered significant declines at the 90-day Monmouth Park meet that ended Sunday, both ontrack and off.

Ontrack handle on Monmouth races fell to an average of $645,523, 8.5 percent lower than last year's daily average for an 87-day meet. Even greater was the 14.4 percent drop in total daily handle on Monmouth racing from all sources, to $3,019,576.

The lone bright spot was attendance, averaging 9,093 daily, right in line with 9,085 in 2004.

"Unfortunately, declining numbers have been the national trend in racing this year," said Dennis Dowd, Monmouth's senior vice president for racing.

Unusually hot and humid weather and a baked and battered turf course contributed to Monmouth's lost business.

The summer was the "hottest on record in New Jersey," according to the Asbury Park Press on Sept. 22.

The season took a toll on both horses, who needed more time to recuperate from races, and humans, who stayed put, when possible, in air-conditioned comfort.

It reached a boiling point on Aug. 13 when several top riders refused to ride because of the oppressive conditions. Monmouth salvaged the card with substitute jockeys picking up the open mounts.

The weather had a devastating impact on the turf course's final season. The course was slated for replacement after Labor Day, one of the major renovations planned for the 2007 Breeders' Cup.

The burnt-out course was available on only a limited basis from August through early September.

The absence of a substantial turf schedule was a major factor in the decline of the average field size from 8 horses per race in 2004 to 7.6 this year. Smaller fields produced races less attractive to bettors, as reflected in the handle declines.

Help could be on the way next year.

"I think everybody in racing recognizes we need to do a better job giving our customer a better product," said Bob Kulina, the track's vice president and general manager. "Two of the ways we're going to do it is to redo both surfaces. That should help."

The new turf course is scheduled to debut on Memorial Day weekend next year. The main track will have a new cushion installed for opening day, May 13.

On the racing front, Joe Bravo amazingly won an 11th riding title with 108 victories despite missing almost seven weeks with a broken collarbone.

Kelly Breen was leading trainer for the first time with 38 winners. The race for leading owner produced a triple dead heat, with Eddie Broome, Michael Gill, and Peter Kazamias logging 13 winners each.