04/30/2008 11:00PM

Bigger purses, more stakes at meet

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Last year Richard Fields, the new majority owner of Suffolk Downs, breathed new life into the 73-year-old track by investing millions of dollars in improvements and bringing back the Massachusetts Handicap after two years on the shelf. This year's 103-day meet starts with a similar positive outlook, but cloudy skies are on the horizon.

Fields, who developed casinos in Florida before sliding into horse racing, was stymied this winter when state legislators stopped a proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick for three resort casinos. Suffolk was considered a front-runner for the Boston-area license and the track's lobbyists were influential in shaping the proposal.

Now that prospects for expanded gaming at the track have dimmed, Fields and his team are focusing on the assets they do have - live horse racing in a big sports city - and looking long term.

"Richard Fields is not a cut-and-run guy," said chief operating officer Chip Tuttle. "You can come away from the vote in March with a glass- half-empty or half-full outlook. The support for expanded gaming has never been stronger and we've got to take a long-term view of this."

The optimism Fields brought last year materialized into increases in handle and attendance, and those numbers have led to a 5 percent purse increase to start this season. There are also changes in the racing office, with former association steward Sam Elliott now vice president of racing and Tom Creel replacing Jimmy Pambianchi as racing secretary. The team expects 200 to 300 more horses than last year in the barn area by later this month.

The Mass Cap headlines a nine-race stakes schedule and is slated for Sept. 20 with a $500,000 purse and a spot in the Breeders' Cup Win and You're In program. There will be five new $50,000 open stakes on the calendar this year.

A Suffolk alumnus has made the big time: Awesome Chic was to start in Friday's Kentucky Oaks. Trained by last year's second-leading trainer Rafael Ramos, the filly debuted in Boston last November before going on to win the Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs in March.

Live racing in May starts out at two days, Wednesdays and Saturdays plus Memorial Day. Twilight Fridays and Sundays are added starting June 6. Post time will be 12:45 p.m. Eastern, with 3 p.m. Fridays ending after Labor Day. The meet runs until Nov. 8.

* Jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. will return to Suffolk to begin riding starting Saturday. Arroyo said he is returning to Boston, where he first began riding in 1999, because his father is ill and may need an operation. Arroyo said he plans to stay for at least two or three months while monitoring his father's health.

"He needs me right now," said Arroyo, who had been riding in New York.

- additional reporting by David Grening