Garden State Park racetrack hasn't paid a winning bet in seven years, but some determined thieves might be riding one horse straight to a big payoff.Garden State Park racetrack hasn't paid a winning bet in seven years, but some determined thieves might be riding one horse straight to a big payoff.

"We've never seen anything like this before," said Detective Sgt. Joseph Vitarelli.

The thieves will probably hack the horse up and sell it as scrap, Vitarelli said.

They would have done better selling the statue to an unsuspecting art collector. The studio that sculpted it says it's worth at least $500,000.

Vitarelli says a report was filed Monday night, but no one is sure when the horse thieves struck.

A Caterpillar front-end loader that was parked 100 feet from the statue left tracks leading right up to the pedestal that supported the missing steed, Vitarelli said.

Vitarelli said that investigators aren't sure whether the front-end loader was used in the heist and wouldn't say if they think it was an inside job.

Even if the front-end loader was used to knock the piece down, Vitarelli said he still can't fathom how it was transported out.

"We're all kind of scratching our heads," he said. "I don't think they could have used a pick-up truck."

Representatives from Edgewood Properties, the company developing the land where the statue was stolen, did not return phone calls for comment. A man at one of the leasing offices was unaware the sculpture had been stolen.

The stolen sculpture, titled "Athletes of Race: Primitive," featured an American Indian riding a horse bareback. Its companion piece, "Athletes of Race: Modern," features a jockey riding a saddled horse.

The two pieces stood in a large, weed-filled field on the construction site, next to the New Jersey Transit rail line to Atlantic City.

Cherry Hill police contacted local scrapyards, asking them to be on the lookout for a giant bronze horse, or parts of it. None of them reported seeing anything, Vitarelli said.

Cynthia Schomberg, whose husband Thomas sculpted the pieces for Garden State Park in the 1980s, said the sculpture took at least a year to make and probably weighed at least 1,000 pounds.

Local scrapyards were buying brass for about $1.85 a pound yesterday but Schomberg said the piece had value beyond its weight.

"It's the amount of labor involved," she said yesterday from the couple's studio in Evergreen, Colo. "It's very sad."

The artist, Thomas Schom-berg, also sculpted Philadelphia's Rocky statue.

If the statue is still in one piece, Cherry Hill officials say they want it returned, unharmed.

"This town will not stand for this type of behavior and will be exploring every avenue including local scrapyards to find our bronze thoroughbred," said township spokesman Dan Keashen.

The statues originally stood at the entrance to Garden State Park, which was closed in 2001 and later demolished after almost 60 years of racing.

According to Cherry Hill's Web site, the property developer purchased the statues and planned to incorporate them into the massive mixed-use project under construction there. *