05/06/2009 11:00PM

Paco Lopez adds to depth of jockey colony

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Paco Lopez, the 2008 Eclipse Award winner as the outstanding apprentice rider, will try his hand at Monmouth Park this summer.

It won't be an easy lineup to crack, with a solid group of returning veterans that includes young guns Jose Lezcano and Eddie Castro, both 24, who finished one-two in standings last year, to go along with Stewart Elliott, Chuckie Lopez, and Daniel Centeno.

And let's not forget Joe Bravo, 13-time leading rider at Monmouth.

Bravo, 37, is back with a new agent this season - former jockey Danny Nied. Bravo avoided injury last year, a problem in recent seasons, while focusing more on quality over quantity. Despite riding less - he had 127 fewer mounts than Lezcano - Bravo still logged 95 wins, including a meet-high 14 stakes victories.

Now he's back home after traveling extensively for mounts and riding in the Dubai World Cup and the Kentucky Derby.

"I've been round the world, but there is no place like Monmouth Park," Bravo said. "This riding colony is pretty good. They are very talented."

It is perhaps one of the deepest rider contingents in recent memory.

"You can go eight to 10 deep with quality riders this year," said Bob Kulina, Monmouth's vice president and general manager. "It should be very competitive and one of the most positive aspects of our program this season."

State offering jockey insurance plan

Monmouth jockeys will be covered by health, dental, and vision insurance this year under provisions of a newly created New Jersey State Jockey Health and Welfare Trust.

New Jersey joins California, Delaware, and Pennsylvania as the racing states offering riders' insurance.

The premiums will come from two sources. Part of the cost will be covered by a portion of the takeout from wagers at the state's OTB facilities. The remainder comes from the riders themselves: $15 per mount in the state for the first 300 races per year.

The trustees for the program are Kulina; Terry Meyocks, the Jockeys' Guild national manager; and three veteran Monmouth riders, Bravo, DeCarlo, and Lopez.

Track adjusts racing schedule

There are several modifications to the 2009 Monmouth schedule, starting with the opening weekends.

Monmouth will race only on Saturday and Sunday for the first two weekends, eliminating Friday from the early schedule.

The track will run Friday through Monday on Memorial Day weekend before settling into a Wednesday through Sunday routine starting May 29.

The next major change comes in September. Following the Labor Day card, Monmouth will run only four days a week - Thursday through Sunday - through closing day, Sept. 27.

Dufford serves as stakes coordinator

Dan Dufford, a familiar face in the Monmouth racing office, moves into a new seat for this meet: stakes coordinator.

Dufford, 58 and a second-generation horseman, replaces Mike Melendez, who accepted a steward's position at Philadelphia Park.

Dufford was a trainer for 25 years who won the 1984 Salvator Mile with Rumptious. He joined the Monmouth racing office 11 years ago.

"I should have enough experience," Dufford said. "I've got a good rapport with the horsemen. My father was a trainer before me. I've been at Monmouth Park my whole life."

One major change in the race office: a new entry policy. Monmouth will now take entries at least 72 hours in advance, abandoning the longstanding 48-hour policy for weekend entries.

* Longtime owner Joel Kligman was named the 2009 winner of the Virgil "Buddy" Raines Distinguished Achievement Award for "continuing commitment to the sport of Thoroughbred racing as an owner or trainer and whose conduct has been exemplary for professionalism, integrity and service to the sport."