09/30/2003 12:00AM

Short meet long on turf racing

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The shortest meet in the history of The Meadowlands Racetrack could be one of the greenest.

The Big M opens Thursday night for a 28-day meet through Nov. 8. The track will race Tuesdays through Saturdays. Post times Wednesday through Saturday will be 7:30 p.m. with 1:10 p.m. matinees on Tuesday.

The New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, which owns both tracks, transferred The Big M's traditional September dates to Monmouth Park this year to gauge post-Labor Day interest in live racing on the Jersey Shore.

That left The Meadowlands with a shortened Thoroughbred meet and a big gap in its live racing schedule. The track has not hosted a card since the Standardbred meet ended Aug. 2.

"Hopefully, there will be pent-up demand for live racing in North Jersey." Said Bob Kulina, vice president and general manager of Thoroughbred racing for the NJSEA. "It might be the longest time since the track opened that there has been no live racing. Early indications from group sales indicate we could see some strength in October."

Weather permitting, fans will see an abundance of turf racing. The Big M course, idle all year, is in fine shape.

"We have, without a doubt, the best unused turf course on the East Coast awaiting us," Kulina said. "Obviously, we're going to be very aggressive in using a lot of grass races."

The opening night feature is a $30,000 optional claiming/allowance race at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. The race drew a field of 12 with nine runners carrying the $100,000 claiming tag.

"Don't be surprised to see three or four turf races every night," said Kulina. "We're going to push the envelope. There are some 120 races sitting there in that course, so we're going to try to get it out of it. With turf racing being so popular with horsemen and the public, that should bode well for us."

The highlight of the meet comes Friday: the Grade 2, $400,000 Meadowlands Cup with defending Breeders' Cup Classic champion Volponi expected to be in the field.

A major operational change this meet is the closure of The Meadowlands barn area. No horses will be stabled on the grounds and the track will not open for morning training.

Local runners remain at Monmouth, where training continues through Dec. 1. Every horse at the Big M will ship to the track to run.

The racing office also remains at Monmouth for accepting entries.