08/28/2002 11:00PM

A Dandy milestone in the offing

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SALEM, N.H. - Soft-spoken trainer Ron Dandy managed to sneak up on one of the most significant milestones of his career while dominating yet another New England race meeting.

Dandy is within 10 victories of saddling his 2,000th career winner. Considering the commanding lead he has atop the Rockingham Park trainer standings and his current win rate, September promises two celebrations for the 25-year trainer.

"I knew it was coming up, but I didn't know it was that close," said Dandy of his 2000th win.

Ask Dandy what he's most proud of and he quickly mentions Concorde Bound's run to national prominence in the mid-1980's, and his numerous training titles. The titles reflect his success with every type of horse that competes on the circuit.

"I haven't changed the way I do things," said Dandy. "I have to give great credit to my help and the people that have to put up with me every day. I look at every horse as an individual and approach things that way."

That individual approach has helped him keep his stable strong while the quality of the racing stock in the region has diminished over his years. He also admits those declines are part of why he's won so many races over the past decade.

"It used to be you would go in a race around here and if there were 10 horses, there were eight to 10 really good trainers you were up against," said Dandy. "Now there's only two or three in that same 10-horse race today. The competition isn't as tough around here like it once was."

While that statement might end up as bulletin-board material at other barns, it is also an acknowledgement that Dandy has stayed behind in New England while many of the more competitive rivals moved to bigger circuits.

"I've chosen to stay here," he said. "New England is my home. I love skiing and hunting and so many other things that are right here that I have no interest in leaving. Right now, if you do things right, you could count on being able to squeak by up here. Hopefully with a little more change, we'll be able to do more than squeak by in the future."

Manchester anchors weekend

Saturday's Manchester Handicap is the first of three $25,000 stakes, one each day, this Labor Day weekend.

The six-furlong Manchester pits Yasou Niko, a winner of three straight, against Gold I.D., a winner of four in a row.

Ben Speedin, an allowance winner last out and sixth in the New Hamsphire Sweepstakes earlier this summer, is expected to face Duke Ora, a winner of two of his last three, in Sunday's Sam McCracken Memorial at 1 1/16 miles on the grass.

The Kenneth Graf Memorial is the filly-mare version of the McCracken on Labor Day's doubleheader card. Tip the Scale has won two straight and 6 of 10 starts this year, but will face Sword Princess, whose seventh-placed finish at Saratoga last out was the only off-the-board result of her nine-race 2002 campaign.