08/04/2004 11:00PM

First Episode lures best Mass-bred fillies in training

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Three winners of major stakes for Massachusetts-bred fillies and mares will meet in Saturday's $40,000 First Episode Stakes at Suffolk Downs.

The reigning queen of the Mass-breds, Sunlit Ridge, returned to her winning ways on the grass last time, and now goes looking for her first victory on dirt since December 2001. She has amassed 15 victories from 58 starts and has seven stakes wins, including the 2001 Rockingham Park Oaks.

Sunlit Ridge is the first of four sons and daughters of Sundance Ridge and Sultan's Light who have allowed owner-breeder Manny Roos to turn the statebred program into his own personal cash machine over the past four years.

But the First Episode is 1 1/16 miles on the dirt, and that levels the playing field for Sunlit Ridge's competitors.

African Princess won the Distaff Championship and the Elanora Sears Stakes last year over Sunlit Ridge. She's still winless this year, but has been third in two of her three starts, including a third-place finish behind the impressive Picture Gallery in an open allowance race last time out. She was also third in the Isadorable Stakes at six furlongs to start her season in June. Sunlit Ridge was second in that race.

Last year's Massachusetts Oaks winner Amazing Thunder will make her third start of the year. She looked rusty in her seasonal debut, her first start in six months, and finished fourth in the Isadorable. Last time out, she encountered a troubled trip and settled for second in a starter allowance.

Trainer Marshall Novak sends her out after winning on all three days this past racing week. Novak now has a 25-percent win rate, one of the highest at Suffolk for trainers with 50 or more starts. Novak's win percentage still pales in comparison to that of John Rigattieri, the trainer of Sunlit Ridge, who is winning at a 30-percent clip.

The pace of the First Episode could be soft. None of the heavy hitters in the race are confirmed front-runners and most would prefer to stalk the pace. The sprinter Cindarullah, who wheels back after finishing third behind D D Ruby and Ask Queenie in the Mystery Jet Stakes last Saturday, may possess the best speed.

Owner-trainer Lori Lockhart will send out a three-horse entry to complete the field. Lilly Be Nice should appreciate a return to Massachusetts after six straight crushing losses at Penn National.

Expensive Verdict is the 7-year-old veteran of the race. The former stakes winner has finished in the money in five of her last six starts.

Proper Gun will start from the outside post in the field of seven and is also returning to Boston after toiling with only modest success at Penn National.

Handicapping contest Saturday

Suffolk's second DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship qualifier takes place Saturday in the Topsider Room with a potential five-figure payout and a berth in the finals this winter in Las Vegas awaiting the winner.

This round features a higher entry fee of $100. Players are required to place mythical $20 win-place bets on 10 preselected races from Suffolk, Saratoga, Monmouth, and Del Mar.