05/22/2003 12:00AM

A 'pivotal year' begins

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Monmouth Park is set to open its 2003 extended meet on Saturday with storm clouds - both literally and figuratively - gathering on the horizon.

Most immediately, wet weather is forecast throughout the three-day opening weekend, threatening to force Monmouth's two scheduled graded stakes, the Grade 3 Red Bank Handicap on Saturday and the Grade 3 Jersey Derby on Monday, off the turf.

Longer term, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, the owner of Monmouth and its sister track, The Meadowlands, is hoping this meet does not go the way of last year, when dips in handle and attendance put the track and horsemen at crossed swords over how the racing schedule in 2003 should be devised.

The result was a compromise in which live racing days were cut from 141 to 120, the number of days supported by the NJSEA, with the vast majority of the racing moved to Monmouth, the track favored by horsemen. Monmouth will run 92 days this year, from May 24 to Sept. 28, compared to 78 last year, while The Meadowlands will run a 28-day meet in the fall, compared to the 63 days scheduled for last year.

"It's a pivotal year for us, and we're going through a lot of experimentation in New Jersey right now," said Robert Kulina, Monmouth's general manager, on Thursday.

Despite the poor weather forecast for Saturday, Monmouth is pulling out the stops for its opening-day program, which has a first post of 12:55 p.m. Eastern. Grandstand admission is free, and three stakes are scheduled, including the $100,000 Red Bank Handicap at one mile on the turf.

The Red Bank will almost certainly be pulled off the turf, Kulina said, if the weather forecast holds, along with all the turf races over the weekend, including Monday's 1 1/16-mile Jersey Derby.

"I'm not going to go out the first week and tear [the course] to ribbons," Kulina said.

The other stakes scheduled for opening day are the $50,000 John J. Reilly Handicap for New Jersey-breds going six furlongs and the $50,000 Gilded Time Stakes for 3-year-olds at five furlongs on the turf.

The highlight of the meet is the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational Stakes for 3-year-olds on Aug. 3. In the past, Monmouth has aggressively pursued the leading 3-year-olds in the country for the race, and officials are already setting their sights on Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide, who will likely receive a short break after the June 7 Belmont Stakes.

Monmouth's other Grade 1 race, the $750,000 United Nations Handicap, is scheduled for July 5. The United Nations will be run at 1 3/8 miles over the turf. It annually attracts some of the country's best turf horses.