09/24/2003 12:00AM

New Jersey-bred festival has upside


OCEANPORT, N.J. - The future looks bright for the New Jersey Thoroughbred Festival following an auspicious debut.

The inaugural day to showcase the state's Thoroughbred breeding program on Sept. 20 drew a solid crowd of 9,100, making the 11-race card for New Jersey-breds the best attended day of the post-Labor Day portion of the meet.

"Everything went very well," said Mike Campbell, the executive director of the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association of New Jersey. "We had a nice crowd and Monmouth Park did a great job. The owners and breeders gave the day tremendous support."

Plans are underway to build it into an even bigger event next year.

Citing the uncertainty over whether Monmouth will extend the season into September in 2004, Campbell would like to see the festival moved to mid-August.

"During the summer, with the crowds still on the Jersey Shore, we could draw even better," Campbell said.

Campbell outlined objectives for next year: increased purses through a more extensive and aggressive sale of sponsorship; greater involvement by local businesses; making it a key component of the New Jersey racing schedule; and a realignment of the races to possibly include some grass races.

Exclusive Hopper needs turf for best

Heavy rain in the area earlier this week forced Monmouth to move the turf races Wednesday and Thursday to the main track.

The track hopes to return to the grass for Friday's card, which features a $32,000 allowance race for fillies and mares at one mile on turf.

Grass is essential for one of the entrants, Exclusive Hopper, according to trainer Terri Pompay.

"She can't run on the dirt," Pompay said. "I ran her once here on the dirt and she ran down. She had a rough time with it. We learned that about her."

In her last race, Exclusive Hopper won a $40,000 maiden claiming race by 4 1/4 lengths.

"Last time she ran a terrific race," Pompay said. "She's just started to come around. She's training great and I think she can win right back."

Completing the field are Eightyfivebroadst, Countessa, Barboura, Izona, Alibob, With the Works, Miss Bonn Bonn, Hottentot, Helen's Legacy, and Deesalia.

Volponi heads Big M Cup

The Grade 2, $400,000 Meadowlands Cup on Oct. 3 highlights the opening weekend at The Meadowlands, with Volponi heading the lineup of likely runners.

Volponi ran second in last year's Meadowlands Cup in his final prep before his upset win in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Jersey Giant, the New Jersey-bred who has enjoyed success in open company, Saarland, and Abreeze are also considered probable starters.

Funny Cide was the most intriguing name on the list of 29 nominees. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has not run since finishing third in Monmouth's Haskell Invitational. Trainer Barclay Tagg continues to weigh a number of options for the gelding's next start, with the Meadowlands Cup a possible target.

"We've got the Indiana Derby and The Meadowlands Cup," Tagg said. The Indiana Derby, for 3-year-olds, will be run on Oct. 4. "I'll see who's going into the Meadowlands Cup."

The Meadowlands Cup is the main stakes attraction of an abbreviated meet that runs from Oct. 2 to Nov. 8.

Bravo, Gill, Shuman titles secure

With Monmouth heading into its final weekend of the season, the jockey, trainer, and owner titles are already decided.

Joe Bravo has wrapped up his ninth Monmouth riding title. Mark Shuman, training for leading owner Michael Gill, holds an insurmountable lead over Tim Hills, who won the title last year. Shuman, with 50 wins entering the final week, has a chance to break the meet record of 55 held jointly by J. Willard Thompson and John Tammaro III.

Gill has already obliterated the track mark with 62 wins. Bill Martucci set the previous record of 32 in 1992.