06/10/2003 11:00PM

Thirteen days into meet, first race run on turf

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - And on the 13th day, they finally ran a turf race on the Jersey shore.

Grass racing made its long-awaited debut at Monmouth Park Wednesday afternoon, after excessive rainfall had prevented the use of the course since the meet began on May 24. Every scheduled turf contest - including two Grade 3 stakes, the Red Bank Handicap and the Jersey Derby - had shifted to the main track.

On an overcast afternoon with late-day showers in the forecast, horses finally set foot on the course, which was labeled "soft" and had a temporary rail set 30 feet from the inner hedge.

The first grass races of the season were split divisions of a maiden claimer for horses entered from $30,000 to $40,000.

Helmsman's Hellion won the first such contest, with Nick Santagata in the irons for trainer Gary Caple.

"The course is fine," said Santagata. "It's always fine when you win the race. It's got a little kickback to it. It's a little soft, but they did a great job considering how much rain we got."

Biagio won the other division under Jose C. Ferrer for trainer Alan Seewald.

"It's great to be back, especially when you have grass horses," Seewald said. "I had two horses come off the grass and win over the weekend, so that was good. I'm backed up with about six horses."

Said the veteran Santagata, "I've never seen a winter and a spring like this. All we got was snow and rain. But last Sunday, they did a great job. Other tracks were sloppy - we were fast over here."

Oceanport Handicap might get soaked

The threat of more rain hangs over Saturday's $100,000, Grade 3 Oceanport Handicap, slated for 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

Burning Roma, winner of the Meadowlands Cup last fall on the main track at the Meadowlands, is the expected starting highweight at 119 pounds.

Miesque's Approval (118), from trainer Bill Mott, is also slated to run.

With the forecast so murky, the plans of many trainers are up in the air.

"We're doing this," said trainer Dennis Manning, pantomiming a roll of the dice.

Manning has Just Le Facts, the off-the-turf winner of the Red Bank in the slop, entered on Thursday's card. He might reserve him for the Oceanport if that spot looks more promising.

Fogelsonger drops by for two mounts

With Maryland racing on hiatus for the Colonial Downs meet in Virginia, Ryan Fogelsonger, the 2002 Eclipse Award winner as the top apprentice, popped into Monmouth Wednesday to ride a pair of horses for trainer Gary Capuano.

Fogelsonger, third in the nation in wins behind Russell Baze and Ramon Dominguez, rallied David's Destiny to finish third in the first race.

Fogelsonger finished third again with Many Smiles in the featured $39,000 allowance race, won by odds-on favorite Wild Snitch.

Former Atlantic City track owner visits

Bob Levy, former owner of Atlantic City Race Course, visited Monmouth Wednesday afternoon.

When asked if he missed the aging resort track in southern Jersey, Levy said, "Not at all. The last years were a struggle."

Levy has been active in trying to build a harness track in the Philadelphia area with the lure of getting slots.

"I told everybody it doesn't matter if it's a Thoroughbred, harness, or dog track," Levy said. "All that matters these days is that it's a slots track."

While in the area, Levy planned to visit Jimmy Croll, who trained many of his top horses, including Housebuster and Bet Twice.

State horsemen to support slots

The New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association has called a news conference for Thursday in Trenton to release a legal opinion that supports the constitutionality of video lottery terminals in New Jersey under the auspices of the state lottery.

The concept of VLT's at the state's racetracks was floated over the winter as a way to help the state bridge a multibillion-dollar budget gap. The proposal withered in the face of stiff opposition from the Atlantic City casino industry, which attacked it on constitutional and competitive grounds.

* The board of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association has started the process for the election of officers and directors. Anyone interested should contact one of the trainers on the nominating committee: George Gross, Terri Pompay, or William Tronco.

The roster of candidates will be announced at a general membership meeting July 16.