03/14/2002 12:00AM

Galway girl finds success in Boston

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Forget all the luck of the Irish cliches this St. Patrick's Day Weekend: The key to Ireland-born Helena Keaveney's success at Suffolk Downs has been hard work and ability.

Keaveney, a 22-year-old apprentice rider from Galway, Ireland, has worked her way to the top 10 in the six months she has ridden in New England, despite several agent changes and an ugly-looking fall last month that caused her to miss two days but could have been much worse. Since this meeting began Jan. 1, she has 15 winners in 153 mounts.

She will be aiming for a successful run during the final four months of her apprenticeship, thanks, she says, to lessons learned back home.

"You have to work long hours in Ireland," said Keaveney. "You start at the bottom grooming horses and looking after them for the entire day. There's so many more apprentice riders and fewer opportunities to get started riding. With work done here by 10 a.m. and more chances to ride, I think things are just generally a little easier in America."

The move to the U.S. came at the suggestion of Michelle Nevin, her best friend back home. Nevin's father, Michael, trains in New York and figured to get Keaveney started. Once in New York, former New England jockey Abby Fuller advised Keaveney to go to Boston. One of her biggest supporters has been Irish-born trainer Michael Collins.

"She gets along very well with horses and she's one of the best riders around here at getting out of the gate," said Collins. "I try to give her a shot, but she's like everyone else. She's going to have to earn her way. This is just a good place for a bug to learn."

So how will Keaveney spend her first St. Patrick's Day in Boston?

"I know there's a lot of Irish culture and history [in Boston], but I haven't really been around it yet," said Keaveney. "I'll probably check out the South Boston Parade, but I've been so busy here at the track that I haven't really thought about those kinds of things."

Sunlit Ridge returns

Sunlit Ridge, one of the best horses based in New England last year, was voted Massachusetts-bred Horse of the Year. On Saturday, she will make her first start as a 4-year-old in the $25,000 Isadorable Stakes for Massachusetts-bred fillies and mares.

Trained by John Rigattieri, Sunlit Ridge hasn't raced since winning the 2001 Massachusetts Oaks in December against statebreds. Open stakes victories in the Rockingham Oaks and Highland Happening Stakes earned her consideration as New England's Horse of the Year, an award which ultimately went to New York-based shipper Step With Style.

Big Miss will look for her first win of the season while making her first start with statebreds since winning the Kimball Distaff Championship in December - beating Sunlit Ridge. She was third in the Hannah Dustin Stakes against open company in her most recent start.

Both Sunlit Ridge and Big Miss have had more success at distances longer than the Isadorable's six furlongs. All five of Dr. Desai's wins have come at the distance, but she is winless the past two years during abbreviated campaigns for owner John Kirby and trainer Tim Kirby.