11/06/2003 1:00AM

Season in flux ends with decent results

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The 2003 New Jersey Thoroughbred season, a year fraught with anxiety and experimentation, concludes Saturday night with an 11-race card at The Meadowlands.

The last of the 120 racing dates at the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority tracks drops the curtain on a year in which the anticipated threat of slots/video lottery terminal expansion in neighboring states did not materialize. New Jersey racing held its own, as efforts to expand gaming at racetracks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland fell short.

Purse guarantees of $300,000 for the core Monmouth season of Memorial Day to Labor Day helped attract a strong contingent of horsemen and horses to keep the product at acceptable levels.

It was also a year of changes to the schedule, as Monmouth Park expanded its season to include September and The Big M was cut to a 28-day meet, the shortest in track history.

Overall, the authority felt the results were positive.

"When you talk about the Thoroughbred season, you have to talk about both places," said Bruce Garland, the senior vice president/racing for the authority, referring to Monmouth and The Meadowlands. "I thought the combined Thoroughbred season was a better year than last year."

Garland said the experiment of racing in September at Monmouth might not be repeated, but also added that the experiment was necessary. But the short season at The Meadowlands got a passing grade.

"I think the Thoroughbred meet, although much shortened, has been better than last year," Garland said.

Heading into the final week, the combined handle (which includes all simulcast and offtrack betting on The Meadowlands) was running 14 percent ahead of last year, for an average of $2.1 million per card. Ontrack handle slipped 3 percent to $408,391. Attendance was up 6 percent to 4,274 per card.

"When you look around at what other racetracks are reporting, we're doing average to above average," Garland said. "All in all, we're doing better than last year."

The outlook for 2004 promises continued uncertainty. Neighboring tracks could get slots or VLTs, leaving New Jersey as the only major racing state in the region without alternative gaming support.

"I think we've been successful in defending our state against slot machines in Canada, Delaware, and West Virginia," Garland said. "However, I don't think we can do that if one more jurisdiction enters the fray. It looks like there could be several jurisdictions in the fray."

Based on a prior agreement with the Thoroughbred horsemen and legislative requirements, the Thoroughbred schedule will expand to 141 dates in 2004. The schedule, approved by the New Jersey Racing Commission on Wednesday, has Monmouth running May 29 to Sept. 5, and The Meadowlands running Sept. 7 to Dec. 11.

Garland hopes the season can be reduced through negotiations with the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

"I believe there are more mutually beneficial dates that can be arrived at," Garland said. "I anticipate an ongoing dialog."

That dialog could occur Oct. 12 in Trenton, at the summit called by Gov. Jim McGreevey to discuss the future of New Jersey racing.

"We look forward to meeting with the Sports Authority, legislators, and other segments of the industry at the summit to work toward solutions," said Dennis Drazin, the legislative council for the thoroughbred horsemen.

On The Meadowlands racing front, Chuck Lopez appears poised to take his first Meadowlands riding title since 1979. He entered the final weekend holding a substantial lead over apprentice Alan Garcia.

Eddie Broome led the trainer standings in a bid for this fourth Meadowlands title.

Saturday's final card features the $40,000 Accordant Stakes for New Jersey-breds going six furlongs.

Something Smith owns the best Beyer Figures in the race, matching his career-best 102 last time out while running second against open company in the Gallant Bob Stakes at Philadelphia Park.