09/16/2003 11:00PM

Racetracks brace for Isabel


As Hurricane Isabel took dead aim on the mid-Atlantic coastline on Wednesday, officials at racetracks in the storm's path were closely monitoring its progress.

Lou Raffetto Jr., the chief operating officer at Pimlico in Baltimore, said expected wind gusts of up to 70 mph and a possible 3 to 5 inches of rain Thursday evening into Friday could lead to the cancellation of Friday's live racing.

Raffetto said he didn't anticipate that Thursday's card would be affected. A decision on the status of the Friday card would probably be made Thursday, Raffetto said.

"Friday is very questionable for live racing," Raffetto said. "We could have a lot of flooding issues."

Officials at Charles Town in West Virginia were not planning to make a decision about the track's Thursday and Friday evening cards until Thursday. Mountaineer, also in West Virginia, was scheduled to race on Friday.

Monmouth Park, like most residents and businesses on the New Jersey Shore, continued to brace for the arrival of Isabel, which was expected to hit the area late Thursday night or in the early hours of Friday morning.

Monmouth, located very close to the shoreline, has found itself in the unaccustomed position of facing a hurricane watch that could affect live racing. The Monmouth meet normally ends on Labor Day weekend, but the meet has been extended into late September.

"We've taken some things down, like tents," said Bob Kulina, the track's vice president and general manager. "Other than that, we have to wait to see what happens."

The storm threat puts Monmouth's Friday card in jeopardy.

"We have to make a decision as to whether it will be safe enough to run," Kulina said. "The storm is so fickle - it changes hour to hour."

Monmouth has been remarkably lucky in past severe storms, suffering nothing worse than occasional flooding in the grandstand and on the backstretch.

"We've been pretty fortunate," said Kulina. "We've had no roofs blown off or anything like that. Being as close as we are to the water, we've had damage, but nothing major."

New York's Belmont Park wasn't expected to receive the brunt of Isabel, but with rain and wind in Friday's forecast, the maintenance department was taking no chances. Workers cleared drains and moved outdoor equipment to safe locations.

- additional reporting by Karen M. Johnson