09/02/2004 12:00AM

Abundance of racing on holiday weekend


EAST BOSTON, Mass. - New England goes from one Thoroughbred track to three over Labor Day weekend as Northampton Fair opens in western Massachusetts, Rockingham Park brings racing back to its turf course Sunday, and Suffolk Downs holds three stakes on Saturday and Monday.

It has been lean for owners, trainers, and horse players over the past year and a half here, but the temporary glut of racing opportunities could be a sign of better things in the future.

The Three County Fair in Northampton is the longest-running agricultural fair in the nation, and the carnival type activities will take place alongside racing Friday through Monday when first post is 1:30 p.m. Racing programs are scheduled for the next two weekends as well.

Jockey Edgar Paucar made a splash when he arrived at Northampton from Penn National last year. He has since established himself as a top 10 rider at Suffolk. He will compete with Keturah Obed, who comes north from the mid-Atlantic, for some of the better mounts. Other new faces to the fair's jockey colony include Jesse Hall, Edgar Lyons, and Joe Riston. They will join longtime regulars Howard Lanci and Willie Belmonte.

Last year, notorious maiden Zippy Chippy nearly broke through with his first career victory, only to get caught in the final strides. He is expected to be back at the fair this year, with his current 0-for-98 record.

Suffolk will still be the site for the highest-quality racing in the region, with the $40,000 Bruce G. Smith Memorial Stakes and the Sunset Gun the features on Saturday's card, and the Topsider Stakes on Monday. In the Sunset Gun, the best horse in New England, Milky Way Guy, looks for the turf stakes victory that eluded him on Massachusetts Handicap Day when he was caught in the Old Ironsides by Gran Cesare. He has won his other three starts this season, including two races moved to the main track.

Top Massachusetts-breds Stylish Sultan and Jini's Jet are among the 11 horses trying to hand Milky Way Guy another loss.

Sunday will see the first Thoroughbred racing at Rockingham since the track switched to harness racing for 2003. When Rockingham announced plans to hold the races at the end of the Standardbred card, old animosities between the track and the region's Thoroughbred horsemen's organization resurfacing. Two weeks ago, both sides came to terms, and now the turf course will get some use again, with two allowance races and a $10,000 claiming contest.

The negotiations to bring racing back to Rockingham came amid an election for leadership of the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. Trainer Mario DeStefano was elected president of the group over Anthony Spadea, who had been acting president since Manny Roos stepped aside last winter. Roos was at the helm when the horsemen and Rockingham began their disputes over purse contracts that eventually led to Rockingham's decision to drop flat racing. DeStefano previously served a term as president in the mid-1990's.