05/08/2002 11:00PM

Shore season starts early

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When racing returns to the Jersey Shore on Saturday, Monmouth Park hopes to ride the wave that brought the track across-the-board records in purses, handle, and attendance last year.

After a long battle between horsemen and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands, 141 live racing days, up from 120 in 2001, will be held in the state this year.

The extra days allow Monmouth Park, in Oceanport, to open its doors earlier than usual for its 57th meet and offer 78 days of racing, up six from last year.

Monmouth will race nine days in May, including the next three weekends and Memorial Day. The schedule will be Wednesday through Sunday in June and July. For a two-week period in August, the track will race six days a week.

"I have high expectations for this meeting, starting with a strong opening," said Bob Kulina, Monmouth Park's vice president of racing and general manager. "The two early weekends, particularly Preakness weekend, should be very good."

The opening-day feature is a $50,000 overnight handicap for statebred filly and mare sprinters.

The $1 million Haskell Invitational on Aug. 4 is the highlight of a $5.75 million stakes schedule. Last year, Point Given, who later was crowned Horse of the Year, won the Grade 1 Haskell before an announced crowd of 47,127, largest in track history.

Another important stakes is the $250,000 Monmouth Park Oaks, which will be run on Aug. 17. The last two fillies to win the Oaks, Spain and Unbridled Elaine, went on to capture the Breeders' Cup Distaff. The $500,000 United Nations, a Grade 1 for turf runners, is scheduled for July 6.

Last year, the average overnight purse distribution reached an all-time high of $301,000, thanks to nearly $12 million in purse supplements from the state. Sean Greely, Monmouth Park's racing secretary, anticipates purses this year will be "about $325,000 a day, including stakes."

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