01/31/2002 12:00AM

Balmy Suffolk enjoys good times


EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Few racing regions appreciate the unseasonably warm weather that spread over the country last week more than New England.

With just one cancellation at Suffolk Downs through January and recent record-high temperatures, Suffolk Downs officials and horsemen are cautiously optimistic about the rest of the winter.

"It's been very good," said chief operating officer Bob O'Malley. "Last year the weather turned awful right at Thanksgiving and things were dreary for five months. Now we can count down to April 1."

The famous changes in New England weather - with days of snow and cold replaced quickly by spring-like conditions - usually make track superintendent Steve Pini's job a nightmare, but the extreme swings have been absent this year and the few storms (like the nationally televised one during the New England Patriots-Oakland Raiders game) have come on dark days.

"The coldest temperature we've measured has been 22 degrees," said Pini. "That's crazy for around here. We've had a lot of wet tracks. But when we don't get those wild swings and temps stay up there, it makes things a lot easier."

Cold weather and rough track conditions usually lead to squabbles between the jockeys, horsemen, and management, but 2001-02 has been an era of good feeling.

"It's been incredible this year, but there's been a couple of reasons for that beyond the weather," said leading rider and Jockeys' Guild representative Joe Hampshire Jr. "This group of riders is very gritty. In fact it's one of the toughest groups of kids I've seen when it comes to handling the conditions. Also, management did a great job in changing the amount of sand in the track. They've really worked with us."

Forecasters say winter will be back for Saturday's card after a mixed-bag of rain, sleet, and snow again spared live racing and struck on the past two dark days.

Stylish, uh-huh

Stylish Sultan will look for consecutive stakes victories in his 3-year-old debut in the $30,000 Collegian Stakes at six furlongs on Saturday. The Arthur Duffy-trained full brother to regional turf queen Sunlit Ridge bested Storm Lad in the Norman Hall Stakes by a half-length in December. Storm Lad has post seven. Stylish Sultan drew post nine and will be coupled with Mister Silence for owner Manny Roos.

Pharaoh's Cat makes his first start in New England since being claimed for $50,000 at Turfway Park by red-hot trainer Peter Bazeos. A stakes winner last fall, he finished fifth in the Fred Capossela Stakes at Aqueduct in his first start for owner Anthony Pylliotis.