06/16/2002 11:00PM

Numbers down from last year's blowout


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Last year's Monmouth meeting, one of the best in recent years in terms of handle and attendance, raised the bar for years to come. So far the 2002 numbers have not reached those lofty heights.

Average daily onsite handle is down 8 percent from last year to $1,615,284. Average daily offsite betting on Monmouth is down 7 percent to $2,335,006, and average total handle is down 7 percent. Daily attendance is at 10,486, down 4 percent.

The biggest factor this meet has been the weather, said Monmouth officials. In the last two weeks, the turf course has been washed out six days out of 10. Last Saturday's Grade 3 Oceanport Handicap, the prep for the Grade 1 United Nations Handicap July 6, was also washed off the turf.

"The weather has been a major factor, but that's just the way it is," said Monmouth general manager Robert Kulina. "The weekends have been great and the weekdays have been poor."

This year's meet started early, opening up for two weekends before Memorial Day, and there have been mixed reviews on the extended date schedule. Monmouth will also run six days a week for two weeks in August.

Kulina said the quality of racing "has not quite been where we want it," and said that may be the biggest disappointment of the meet so far. He said the weekends have been strong, but the quality on weekdays has been weaker. Many factors have contributed, he said, though mainly trainers have not had their horses ready to run for the early start of the meeting. The closing of Garden State Park and the lack of stalls at the Gulfstream Park meeting, where many Monmouth trainers stable in the winter, have left trainers without a place to prep their horses. Also, a virus has struck horses in many barns on the backside.

If the meet is to pick up in handle and attendance, Father's Day Sunday was a good sign. The attendance was 20,262 - the highest of the meet. A key weekend will be July 4. With races including the Grade 1 United Nations and the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher, both of which will be televised on CBS, officials are expecting a successful weekend. That is, as long as the weather is good.

"Hopefully we'll get through this raining spell, and the worst will be behind us," Kulina said. "Normally, this would be the second week of the meet. July 4th weekend is when the heart of the meet starts."

Oceanport changes U.N. picture

Trainers who had planned to use Saturday's $100,000 Oceanport Handicap as a prep for the Grade 1 United Nations Handicap on July 6 were left with a dilemma after the Oceanport was taken off the turf because of rain the day before the race. Trainers of two of the horses - Szep and Crash Course - will decide whether to run in the U.N. within the next week or two.

Trainer Phil Oliver has been just out of the money in the last two runnings of the U.N. and was hoping Szep would be the one to give him a shot to hit the boards. Szep's last race came May 25, a runner-up finish in an allowance here. Oliver said he is considering running Szep in a three-other-than allowance this Saturday, and depending on his performance, he may consider placing him in the U.N.

"Two weeks might be a little quick to bring him back in a tough Grade 1," Oliver said. "But if he runs big in it and comes out of the race good, I might think about it."

The Jimmy Croll-trained Crash Course, the likely favorite for the Oceanport, hasn't run since winning the Grade 3 Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream on Jan. 20. William Croll, son and assistant trainer to Jimmy Croll, said Crash Course would work a mile on the dirt Wednesday and a mile on the turf the following Wednesday. After that workout, they will make a decision on whether to run in the U.N.

"Right now, we're still planning on running him in the U.N.," William Croll said. "But he will have to train pretty good to convince us. It's a lot to ask of him and we don't want to knock him out, because there are some nice races in the fall."

Burningham joins the jockey colony

Jeff Burningham rode in just one race at Monmouth on June 2 before this Sunday, when he rode in four. Burningham won two and ran second twice on Sunday, including in the featured $50,000 Longfellow Stakes aboard Esteemed Friend.

Burningham and Vernon Bush, both New England-based jockeys, will join the Monmouth jockey colony this week.

Burningham, 30, won the first and fourth races Sunday for New England trainers Dimitrios Synnefias and Anthony Ryan. Synnefias shipped Esteemed Friend and Captain Red here for the Longfellow, along with two other starters. Burningham led Comic Genius to a runner-up finish in the $39,000 optional claiming allowance fifth race and Esteemed Friend to second in the feature. He got off to a great start in his first riding stint at Monmouth, as his mounts earned $62,350.

Burningham rode in Canada at Woodbine and Fort Erie before shifting to Suffolk Downs in December, his agent Lisa Welsch said. He finished sixth in the jockeys' standings. Bush, 40, who has ridden throughout the country, including short stints at Monmouth, was ninth in the standings after starting in February at Suffolk. They are at Rockingham Park now until they shift to Monmouth Wednesday. Welsch will also have Bush's book.

* The top four finishers from the Thomas J. Malley Stakes at five furlongs on the turf May 26 return for the Thursday feature, a $45,000 money allowance for fillies and mares at the same conditions. Sparkling Number, winner of the Thomas J. Malley by a neck, has won three stakes over the Monmouth grass and has never been out of the money in five starts here.

* Roberto Alvarado took off all his mounts on Sunday because he injured his left hand washing his truck that morning. Alvarado's hand was very swollen and he was told by the track physician that riding would put unnecessary pressure on it. Alvarado should be back riding Wednesday.