05/27/2003 12:00AM

Turf course unusable till sun dries it


OCEANPORT, N.J. - The rain that deluged the Northeast coast the entire Memorial Day weekend will likely wash off the turf races at Monmouth Park until Saturday or Sunday, track racing officials said Monday.

"We can only hope that the sun comes out," said Robert Kulina, Monmouth's vice president of racing. "You need sun and wind. That's the only thing that will dry it out."

Monmouth moved all its turf races to the dirt on opening weekend, including its two graded stakes, the Grade 3 Red Bank Handicap on Saturday, opening day, and the Grade 3 Jersey Derby on Monday. For a brief time on Saturday, the rain played into Monmouth's favor when Bobby Frankel unexpectedly entered the Kentucky Derby runner-up, Empire Maker, in the Jersey Derby because of the poor condition of Belmont Park's dirt course in New York. But Frankel opted on Sunday to train Empire Maker over the turf at Belmont instead of running in New Jersey.

"It was something we weren't counting on to start off with, so it wasn't that hard to take," Kulina said, referring to Frankel's decision to work the horse in New York. "It generated a little excitement."

The wet weather had other impacts on the opening weekend as well.

Attendance was well below Monmouth's average three-day opening, with 12,367 on Saturday, 15,642 on Sunday, and 9,810 on Monday, for a total of 37,819. The typical average is approximately 50,000 for opening weekend, according to Bruce Garland, the track's senior vice president.

Racing officials said that they were pleased with the results, however, considering that tracks all along the East Coast were hurt by the storm. They also said that ontrack handle on Monmouth's races and simulcasts on Saturday and Sunday was up compared to last year.

"We're actually fortunate to even get the day in today considering the weather this morning," Kulina said Monday. "We probably had two of the three biggest ontrack crowds at any track this weekend, so you have to be pleased with that."

Horsemen supported the card heavily over the first three days, entering 340 horses for 35 races, or 9.7 a race. Scratches, though, reduced that number by 78 over the three cards, driving the average down to 7.5.

Thursday's feature, a $40,000, one-mile optional claiming race, was still listed for the turf as of Monday, but the race will almost certainly be moved to the dirt. The race drew a consistent group of allowance and high-priced claiming horses, including Northern Fantasy, Thunder Chief, Powerful Appeal, and also-eligibles Coco's Madness and Casino Raider.