07/25/2001 11:00PM

Sharp rise in Monmouth business


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Monmouth is bucking the national trend.

While attendance and handle are down at most racetracks across the country, Monmouth is enjoying one of its best meets in recent years.

Through last Sunday, Monmouth has had significant gains in every category of handle and attendance.

The most encouraging figure, according to Monmouth's general manager Robert Kulina, is the 4 percent increase in ontrack live handle. "We had experienced a decline in the ontrack handle for years," he said, "but this year's increase shows that the product is improving."

Wagering on Monmouth's races through simulcasting is averaging $2,541,763, up 11 percent, the largest increase of any category. Simulcast wagering has helped to raise the total handle per day to $3,445,281, up 9 percent from last year.

For the first time, Monmouth's full-card signal is being taken throughout New York, in OTB's and now at Saratoga Racetrack. According to Monmouth officials, $135,745 was wagered on Monmouth's races by patrons at Saratoga and Aqueduct on Wednesday - $67,826 at Saratoga and $67,919 at Aqueduct.

Although no definite figure was available, Monmouth officials estimated that around $800,000 was wagered on Monmouth throughout the state of New York. With betting at Aqueduct, Saratoga, and OTB's, Monmouth officials see the potential of more than $1 million being bet per day just in New York.

Ontrack attendance is averaging 10,521, compared with 9,503 at the same time last summer, an increase of 11 percent. Despite the turf course experiencing a plague of army worms, and opening weekend being rained out, attendance continues to rise.

A crowd of more than 40,000 is expected for the Grade 1 Haskell, a race bolstered by the anticipated appearance of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner, Point Given.

"I still look at the attendance figures as becoming less important across the country, due to off-track-betting," Kulina said. "But it is encouraging to see our growth against the downward national trend."

On Aug. 5, New Jersey racing will experience two of the most important events this year - the Haskell and the signing into legislation of offtrack-betting and account wagering. Kulina said he expects the success of Monmouth to carry over to The Meadowlands and into the future.

"The most important thing is setting the stage for long-term growth in our product," he said. "The future is extremely bright."

Mandella's mare tops Blue Sparkler

Dick Mandella and Diamond A Racing Corporation, who teamed up for victories in the Grade 3 Eatontown Handicap and Grade 1 Haskell on the same day last year, return to Monmouth with Shutup and Dance in Saturday's undercard stakes, the $75,000 Blue Sparkler Stakes for fillies and mares at six furlongs.

Shutup and Dance, a 5-year-old mare, started her career only this year. She won three straight races, including a restricted stakes for Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park, but did not fare as well in two Belmont starts. She was only beaten a length, finishing fourth in the Grade 2 Genuine Risk Handicap on May 12, but then was a well-beaten third as the odds-on favorite in a Belmont allowance June 15. Eibar Coa gets the call on Shutup and Dance, who will break from post 3.

Katz Me If You Can, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, won the Genuine Risk and has run well since. She was third in the Vagrancy and second in the Regret Stakes here July 4 to runaway winner Big Bambu. Joe Bravo will be aboard.

Others entered for the race are Timely Affair, Sally Q, Sexual Harrasment, and Cedar Knolls.

* Eibar Coa was given a seven-day suspension for careless riding by the stewards Wednesday for his riding in last Sunday's eighth race aboard Heroic Sight, who was disqualified from second to last. According to his agent, Joe Ferrer, Coa appealed the suspension Thursday morning, and will be able to continue riding. Through Wednesday, Coa was two wins behind Joe Bravo in the jockeys' standings.

* Thursday's races were run over a sloppy track after an early morning downpour, but the weather forecast for the weekend is expected to be mostly sunny, and the track should be fast. The track needed the rain on Thursday, as it had not received any moisture for some time.