05/06/2009 11:00PM

Respect Atlantic City, Philly shippers

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Opening day at Monmouth Park marks the start of the summer for New Jersey horseplayers, even though it's spring for another six weeks and the recent weather has been largely wet and dreary. And after a long, cold winter, the temptation may be to jump right into the action on Saturday, as if we're all in mid-season form.

Since there has not been any racing in New Jersey since last fall, every runner early in the meet is either a shipper or will be returning from an extended break, either from the Meadowlands fall meet or from the 2008 Monmouth meet. Weighing the strength of the races at surrounding tracks, as well as at Gulfstream, Keeneland, Tampa, and Calder, among others, is a daunting task, one that doesn't get easier until local form is established by the layoff horses. Until that happens, a look back at last year's first few weeks could prove to be a worthwhile exercise.

As expected, shippers from New York won their fair share of races, accounting for 14 wins through the first six days of racing here in 2008. There's also no surprise in learning that there's not a lot of value in playing horses coming in from Aqueduct or Belmont. The average win price was only about $6.20, and there were nine beaten favorites, several of them odds-on, who last raced at one of those two tracks. Gulfstream shippers did about as well, winning a good number of races (13) but largely at light prices. The average win mutuel was about $9, but that figure is skewed by a $38 winner, Bianco, from trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. Take that runner out of the mix and the average win price for Gulfstream ship-ins the first six days was $6.60.

Of course, as horses from those two circuits take more money than they should, that provides value on runners from other circuits. The best-priced winners came from shippers from nearby tracks, Atlantic City and Philadelphia Park, as handicappers tend to overlook these horses despite decent form.

Last year, the first six days of racing at Monmouth yielded four winners from Atlantic City Race Course, which runs an abbreviated, turf-only meet with races featuring large, competitive fields. Four winners may not seem like a lot but there were only 24 races with starters direct from Atlantic City, and the win prices averaged $23. Look for this trend to continue, because this year's Atlantic City meet was the strongest in recent years. Philadelphia Park invaders are more plentiful than shippers from Atlantic City and they accumulated more wins (10) while averaging slightly less than $15 per win.

Trainer John Tammaro III sent out winners from both Atlantic City and Philadelphia Park on the first weekend of the 2008 season, as well as a horse returning from a long break on the second day of the meet. This year?

"The entries didn't go right for me this year, but we got two horses in on Saturday," said Tammaro, a three-time leading trainer at Monmouth Park. "I don't think we'll be able to do what we did last year, but one of the horses that won for us on opening day last year is back on opening day this year."

That would be Salmon Run, who scored at nearly 22-1 in his first start off a nine-month layoff last year. That was his only win of the year, but since Saturday's race marks another return from a long break, it's an angle worth exploring.

"He's doing great, just like he was last year," said Tammaro.

Another trainer who got off to a quick start in 2008 was Greg Sacco, and he remained consistent throughout the summer, posting 17 wins at Monmouth. Sacco won three races in the first four days of the 2008 meet and seems positioned to enjoy a solid 2009 season despite a slow meet at Gulfstream (2 for 45).

"I think we're prepared," said Sacco, who has two runners in Saturday, Lookin Left and C'Est Valliere, both Gulfstream ship-ins. "We were a little frustrated with our winter in Florida, and while we didn't concede Gulfstream, we started looking forward to Monmouth around mid-February. We'll be aggressive right from the get-go. The horses we have will be live."