07/03/2001 12:00AM

Worms close turf course


An infestation of army worms on the Monmouth Park turf course has put grass racing on indefinite hold at the New Jersey racetrack.

The worms were spotted last weekend, according to Monmouth Park officials, and the course began receiving treatments of pesticides on Monday. Monmouth did not take any entries for turf races that could have been scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, the only days for which overnights were available, and the turf course has been closed for the immediate future.

"It's really screwy, but it is something that is hitting this area," said Steve Schwartz, Monmouth's director of media relations, on Tuesday. "They only go after the rye grass. They suck the chlorophyll right out of them."

Schwartz said the damage did not extend to the foundation of the turf course. Monmouth officials have not yet determined how long the turf course will have to be closed, he said. For now, decisions will be made on a day-to-day basis.

The army worms are indigenous to the South and Midwest, but local agricultural officials have said that infestations have recently hit several areas along the New Jersey shore, possibly after worm larvae were carried north on the winds of Tropical Storm Allison several weeks ago. The worms are not a health hazard, but their feeding habits can destroy healthy lawns.

The worms are typically one-quarter inch to 2 1/2 inches long, and are colored brown or black with a white or grey stripe. Although they are notorious in the heartland for infesting corn or wheat fields, they will feed on grass if nothing else is available.

Even though damage to the turf course was noticeable on Sunday, track officials elected to run the Grade 1 United Nations Handicap and three other races on the turf that day.

Dennis Drazen, a horse owner and legislative counsel to the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said that the damage on Sunday appeared as brown spots in the grass, "like it wasn't getting enough water." Drazen said his brother, Brian, who is also his neighbor in nearby Fair Haven, had treated an infestation of the worms at his own property, and was told the treatment would take a week.

Ben Perkins Jr., a trainer at Monmouth, said that he had not yet been affected by the closure because his turf horses were not ready for races yet. But he said he was keeping his eye open for opportunities at other tracks.

"I'm probably just going to wait it out, like everybody else," Perkins said. "If they don't get it taken care of in the next week, I guess I'll just have to put my turf horses on a van to Colonial Downs," a racetrack in Virginia that opened for live racing Tuesday.