Updated on 09/15/2011 12:17PM

Opener finally brings good news

Bill Denver/Equi-Photos
Jockey Eibar Coa (left) is the new kid on the block at the Monmouth Park meeting, while Joe Bravo goes after his ninth riding title there.

Racing will return to the New Jersey shore after a trying six months in the state when Monmouth Park opens its gates on Saturday to free grandstand admission, pony rides, and a 12-race card that includes a pair of $50,000 stakes.

The opening-day festivities are meant in part to revive racing fans' interest in a sport that has seen much better days locally. Just this past month, New Jersey racing fans have watched Garden State Park in Cherry Hill close for the last time en route to the wrecking ball, followed by Atlantic City Racecourse reluctantly running a 10-day meet after initially refusing to request days.

Monmouth has no intention of following in those tracks' footsteps, promising $350,000 a day in purses over the 72-day meet with the help of an $11.7 million supplement from the state. Lured by those purses, the highest in Monmouth's history, several new trainers and jockeys will work at the meet for the first time.

The new jockeys include Eibar Coa, a perennial leading rider in south Florida with eight meet titles under his belt, and Maryland regular C.H. Marquez. Among trainers, new additions include Jeff Bonde from northern California and David Paulus from Kentucky.

"Money drives the wagon, and with the purse supplement we have a lot of interest up and down the East Coast," said Bob Kulina, Monmouth vice president of Thoroughbred racing, at a kick-off lunch on Tuesday in the track's turf club.

There will be 15 graded stakes during the meet, including the Grade 1 $1 million Haskell Invitational Handicap on Aug. 5; the Grade 1, $500,000 United Nations on July 1; the Grade 2 $350,000 Philip H. Iselin Handicap on Aug. 26; and the Grade 2, $300,000 Molly Pitcher Breeders' Cup Handicap on June 30.

First post each day is 1 p.m. Monmouth will race through Labor Day, Sept. 2. The track will be dark on Mondays and Tuesdays, except this Monday, Memorial Day, when it will run. The track will be dark next Wednesday. Monmouth offers full-card simulcasts every day.

Coa, who had $6 million in earnings last year, has ridden at Monmouth on several occasions in the past, including a second-place finish on Sir Bear in the Iselin last year, but never for an entire meet. Coa, known for his aggressiveness in the saddle, said he made the trip north this year because of his connections to trainers stabled at Monmouth.

"We've had success riding for some of the outfits that race [in Florida] in the winter and [at Monmouth] in the summer," he said. "The purses here are real good, so we decided we'd give it a shot."

Coa is booked to ride one of the favorites, Cousin Gigi, in the one-mile turf stakes on opening day, the Politely Stakes, but he does not have a mount in the other $50,000 stakes, the John J. Reilly. Joe Bravo, who has won eight Monmouth riding titles, will be aboard local sprint specialist Loaded Gun in the six-furlong Reilly, and he is booked to ride Silver Rail in the Politely.

Despite the rain that has drenched the East Coast over the past four days, Monmouth racing officials were optimistic on Thursday that the Politely would stay on the turf, citing sunnier forecasts going into opening day.

Monmouth's biggest day of the summer will undoubtedly be Aug. 5, when the track's marquee 3-year-old stakes, the Haskell Invitational Handicap, will be run, supported by three other graded stakes. Kulina said he has already gotten a "maybe" from trainer Bob Baffert to bring Congaree, third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, to the Haskell.

The Haskell has been won in recent years by Skip Away, Holy Bull, and Serena's Song, and last year the track broke its attendance record when 41,630 showed up and watched Dixie Union beat Captain Steve by three-quarters of a length. Captain Steve went on to win the Dubai World Cup this year.