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’Cup comes home to the Jersey shore

Oct 23, 2007 1:50 AM

Monmouth Park is the track where I discovered racing’s theory of relativity. I once left there with $20 and felt rich, and another time left with $200 and felt broke.

Such are the vagaries of the game. Winning isn’t everything. Playing is, and there wasn’t a more scenic atmosphere in which to try your hand at win, place and show than Monmouth Park.

Hard by Asbury Park, from whence Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band emerged, and adjacent to the sprawling Gatsbyesque wooden mansions in the "Old Money" town of Deal, Monmouth Park was New Jersey’s showcase race track for thoroughbreds.

It still holds tinges of class, but now, sadly, it is New Jersey’s only thoroughbred race track of the original Big Three. Sure, another, Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing yet operates, but it’s only a token meet of a few days that permits it to offer satellite wagering throughout the year. The third, Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, was razed years ago. Where once Citation and Dr. Fager and Secretariat displayed their incomparable equine artistry before live crowds that would surpass 50,000, now stands acre upon acre of elegant shops on real estate that harbors ghosts of an era vanished into memory.

But with presentation of the 24th Breeders’ Cup World Championships that take place at Monmouth Park for the first time Friday and Saturday, thoughts of yesterday evolved from a cloudy realm into vivid focus.

The best thoroughbreds in training the world over will participate in 11 races worth $23 million, climaxed by the $5 million Classic on Saturday, which should determine Horse of the Year. Three new races were added this year, each worth $1 million, and will be run Friday (post time in parentheses): the Filly & Mare Sprint for 3-year-olds and up at six furlongs (1:25 p.m.); the Juvenile Turf, for 2-year-olds at one mile (2 p.m.); and the Dirt Mile (to be run at a mile and 70 yards), for 3-year-olds and up (2:35 p.m.).

Saturday’s menu, in order of presentation, consists of the Juvenile Fillies at 11/16 miles (9:30 a.m.); the Juvenile at 11/16 miles (10:10 a.m.); the Filly & Mare Turf at 13/8 miles (10:55 a.m.); the Sprint at six furlongs (11:35 a.m.); the Mile on turf (12:20 p.m.); the Distaff at 11/8 miles (1:05 p.m.); the Turf, at 1½ miles (1:50 p.m.); and the Classic at 11/4 miles (2:35 p.m.). ESPN will televise Saturday’s show from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

How the standard dirt track and turf course will play perhaps hinges on the weather, since Monmouth traditionally has been a summer venue, racing within several furlongs of the Atlantic Ocean, where tourists come in droves to escape the insufferable East Coast humidity, willing to pay exorbitant fees for a waft from a sea breeze.

Bob Baffert, born in Nogales, Arizona, but otherwise a Californian through and through, knows of the squelching Jersey heat first hand. He won the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth three times, with Point Given in 2001, War Emblem in 2002 and Roman Ruler in 2005. Baffert is scheduled to run four horses in the Breeders’ Cup: $180,000 supplemental entry Tough Tiz’s Sis in the Distaff, Cry and Catch Me and Indian Blessing in the Juvenile Fillies, and Midnight Lute in the Sprint.

"Every time I’ve been there, it’s been the dead of summer in August and it’s always been like 90 degrees," said the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer. "But I know they have some fantastic fans there. They love their racing.

"It’s small, but it’s a great place and a neat track. It has a lot of charm. It’s really easy to view the races, because you’re right on top of the track. You don’t need binoculars."

As a resort and racing hotbed, the Oceanport region is replete with sumptuous watering holes, many featuring delectable denizens of the deep as appetizer and entree.

"They do have a lot of good seafood restaurants there," observed Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, who won the 2000 Haskell with Dixie Union. Mandella will be represented by Dixie Union’s son, Norfolk winner Dixie Chatter, in the Juvenile.

David Hofmans, who runs Greg’s Gold in the Sprint and Balance in the Distaff, is another Southern California-based trainer familiar with Monmouth. He won the 1997 Haskell with Belmont winner Touch Gold, and he summed up the ambiance of the Oceanside track best.

"Monmouth," Hofmans said, "is the Del Mar of the East Coast."

The homestretch

One man’s views on the Breeders’ Cup races, which are often wide open and worth across the board bets: Friday, Filly & Mare Sprint — Dream Rush, Miss Macy Sue, Oprah Winney, Maryfield. Juvenile Turf — Gio Ponti, Globetrotter, Ibn Khaldun, Prussian. Dirt Mile — Diamond Stripes, Discreet Cat, Lewis Michael, Corinthian. Saturday, Juvenile Fillies — Indian Blessing, Izarra, Proud Spell, Smarty Deb. Juvenile — War Pass, Wicked Style, Tale of Ekati, Dixie Chatter. Filly & Mare Turf — Nashoba’s Key, Passage of Time, Wait a While, Danzon. Sprint — La Traviata, Midnight Lute, Smokey Stover, Greg’s Gold. Mile — After Market, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Precious Kitten, Excellent Art. Distaff — Lady Joanne, Lear’s Princess, Hystericalady, Tough Tiz’s Sis. Turf — Dylan Thomas, Better Talk Now, English Channel, Red Rocks. Classic — Street Sense, Any Given Saturday, Hard Spun, Tiago ”¦ And with apologies to Mario Puzo, it looks like the Yankees made Joe Torre an offer he could refuse.