10/21/2007 11:00PM

Rutgers heads Breeders' Cup meet's first day

EmailOCEANPORT, New Jersey - As the oak trees go red and orange in New Jersey, the sight of horses training at Monmouth Park isn't unexpected. Monmouth permits horsemen to stable here into December, even after the track's meet ushers summer out, winding up in September.

But this year, summer's warmth has stubbornly lingered (it was closing in on 80 degrees Monday), and the horses here this week aren't the typical fall New Jersey stock. A 10-race Wednesday card kicks off the four-day Breeders' Cup meet that puts Monmouth squarely in the center of the racing universe.

Breeders' Cup modifications actually began here back before the 2006 season, when the track's grass course was replaced, and Monmouth is ready to play host. It does so in a revamped Breeders' Cup year, with the event expanded from eight races on one day to 11 races spread over two. The eight traditional BC stakes come Saturday, with the three new races - the Juvenile Turf, Filly and Mare Sprint, and Dirt Mile - on Friday's card.

Wednesday's opening salvo is headed by the $100,000 Rutgers, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for 3-year-olds. The race drew a field of 10 (plus one also-eligible), and in a major way mirrors the Breeders' Cup races themselves: The legions are marching from New York.

With the New York City tracks only about 70 miles away, New York-based horses can hop a van down the Garden State Parkway and get here in a couple of hours, and they've heavily infiltrated the Rutgers.

Todd Pletcher sends out Pleasant Strike for the first time since an eighth-place finish in the Grade 1 Secretariat on Aug. 11 at Arlington. Pleasant Strike earlier won the Arlington Classic, and probably is a better horse than he showed last out.

"We might've employed bad tactics that day," Pletcher said. "We thought that we might get an easy lead from the outside, but it didn't work out."

Drawn next to Pleasant Strike is War Monger, a striking Saratoga allowance-race winner two races ago, but a fading fourth behind Nobiz Like Shobiz after setting the pace last time out in the Jamaica Handicap.

"There wasn't any pace in the race, and he wound up being the one to lead," said trainer Bill Mott.

There's more pace Wednesday, and Pleasant Strike, War Monger, or Jamaica third-place finisher Pays to Dream could land a winning trip.

The Rutgers will be run with the rail set 24 feet out into the grass course, protecting the inside paths for the Breeders' Cup. Summer here was dry, and the turf played hard and fast when racing was last conducted, but the local turf may be significantly more forgiving now.

Also in question is the state of the dirt track, which was replaced before the 2007 season, and required the summer addition of sand to try and work through some mid-meet issues. Monmouth's is known as a lightning-fast track, but no one knows how it will play in October.

Workers still were scurrying through final-stage projects Monday in Monmouth's Breeders' Cup facelift, which was facilitated by a $30 million state subsidy, but all the heavy lifting will be done by Wednesday, according to Bill Knauf, a Monmouth point man for the Breeders' Cup project. Temporary open-air seating for 25,000 fans has been erected (there are 13,000 more permanent seats), along with a series of tents, some very large, that are meant to comfortably accommodate race-goers even if Saturday's weather turns wet, which is possible.

Monmouth handles crowds of close to 50,000 on Haskell Day, and is expecting fewer people than that Saturday. There will be some 1,500 parimutuel positions in place, and many more concession stands than for a Haskell card. "We feel extremely comfortable with the experience a fan is going to have," Knauf said.

The locals, suddenly mobbed by crowds of cameras at clocker stands, and dodging hordes of sign-affixing, cable-installing workers, undoubtedly will be glad to actually have the long-anticipated day at hand. But still, there will be Monmouth pride at pulling this off.

"Leading up to this week, I think it's been more of a strain," Knauf said, "but this weekend, we really started to see the fruit of our labors."