09/16/2003 11:00PM

New Jersey-breds front and center for a day

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The long-neglected New Jersey breeding industry finally gets a day in the sun.

Monmouth Park hosts the first New Jersey Thoroughbred Festival Saturday, an afternoon dedicated to New Jersey-bred racing. All 10 races, including three stakes, will showcase horses bred in the Garden State.

"It's a long time coming for a day celebrating New Jersey-breds," said Bob Kulina, vice president and general manager of Monmouth Park. "We're happy to be the host track for such a day and hope that it grows in stature in years to come."

The festival will attempt to raise the profile of the local breeders following the pattern set by similar days in Maryland, California, and New York.

"This day is a great idea," said Gerry Sleeter, one of the leading owners and breeders of New Jersey-breds. "It's the biggest day of the year for us and we're happy to support it."

Three $45,000 stakes races top the day - the Friendly Lover at six furlongs, the William A. Purdey Handicap at one mile and 70 yards for fillies and mares, and the Slady Castle, also at one mile and 70 yards.

In addition to the racing action, a number of local businesses will staff booths to promote local products and services.

"There will be a lot of equine-related booths as well as a number of New Jersey businesses," said Mike Campbell, executive director of the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association of New Jersey. "We will have a parade of breeds, both racing and pleasure."

It all constitutes part of an effort to remind everyone the role racing plays in the local and the state economy.

"Hopefully we'll have a nice crowd out here to experience what the New Jersey-bred program is about," Campbell said. "Everybody is looking forward to it."

The program could use a boost. Foal crops that once exceeded 1,000 in the late 1980's have dwindled in recent years. The 2003 crop will number about 300, a decline of about 60 from 2002.

The main culprit is the declining Thoroughbred season in New Jersey. The state once boasted four tracks and a year-round season. It has shrunk to a handful of all-turf days at Atlantic City Race Course and between 120 and 141 days split between Monmouth and The Meadowlands Racetrack.

"The program has suffered a decrease because of the racing days," Campbell said. "The 120 days is not much of an incentive for people to foal their horses in New Jersey.

"A lot of people went to Pennsylvania and New York. Our racing days weren't decided until late this year. There was a lot of negative publicity surrounding the whole racing program. People went to other states where there is more stability."

Against that backdrop, the New Jersey Thoroughbred Festival will try to build some positive momentum for the breeding program.

"We have to do what we can as an association to combat the racing days issue," Campbell said. "We have to come up with some new ideas and incentives to entice people to run and foal horses here. Hopefully, with days like this and some of the other programs we're working on, we can build exposure and do our part."

The programs include the recently implemented 30 percent bonus for statebred horses racing at New Jersey tracks in open company.

"If you have a New Jersey-bred that runs in open company, the owner should be rewarded as happens in every other state," Campbell said.

The breeders' association is also working on a legislative change what would permit breeders' awards for New Jersey-breds running anywhere in the country.

"With the 120 days, there is not much time for them to earn money here," Campbell said. "We're hopeful of getting that passed by the end of the year to allow people to earn money when they run out of state."

Jersey Giant could try Big M Cup

Jersey Giant, the most prominent New Jersey-bred, will not take part in the New Jersey Festival. He beat open company last weekend in the Skip Trial Stakes at Monmouth and trainer Jim Ryerson has the Grade 2, $400,000 Meadowlands Cup on Oct. 3 in mind as a next start.

"That's the closest spot, and right now we're taking a good look at that," Ryerson said. "We don't have to go too far to get there and he has won over the track."

Volponi is also considered a possible Meadowlands Cup runner. He finished second in last year's edition as his final prep before posting a stunning upset win in the Breeders' Cup Classic.