11/30/2005 12:00AM

Handle declines and slots push seems stalled


The 2005 Suffolk Downs season, which concluded last Wednesday, had declines in both handle and attendance. The 117-day meet was marred by the death of jockey Michel Lapensee, another forced hiatus of the Massachusetts Handicap, and roadblocks from the state government in the pursuit of slots.

Average daily handle on Suffolk races was $1,059,250, a decline of 4.4 percent from last year. An average of $126,026 was bet ontrack each day and $933,224 came via the track's simulcast signal. Average attendance was 3,207 - off 3 percent from 2004, when the numbers were buoyed by a big turnout for the Mass Cap. Overall the track handled a total of $123,932,207 on the season, down 6 percent from last year.

"We knew at the outset of the meet that this would be a challenging year as we continued to pursue legislation to enhance purses," said Christian Teja, a Suffolk Downs spokesman. "Our goal was to do everything we could to sustain our daily purses for the duration of the meet, which we did, and ensure that we would be able to race in 2006, which we will."

The Massachusetts Handicap was canceled for the second time in three years, while the entire stakes program was slashed and that money put into overnight purses. Eventually, four $50,000 stakes were carded using Breeders' Cup funds, and the statebred program remained intact.

The 69-year-old jockey Frank Amonte became the oldest man to ride a winner at a recognized track, but things took a dark turn Oct. 24 when Lapensee, 58, was thrown from a mount and died four days later. The incident resulted in the track granting the jockeys' request to add a paramedic to the ambulance crew, rather than just an emergency technician.

This fall, Suffolk joined with the state's three other parimutuel facilities in a push to bring slots to the tracks, but despite a bill passing the state Senate, the House never took up the issue in the face of a veto from the governor.

The New England Turf Writers announced that Lapensee will posthumously receive the Sam McCracken Lifetime Achievement Award, one of 17 trophies the organization will give out next summer.

Jockey Winston Thompson won his third Suffolk title with 158 wins and will get the Eli Chiat Award as top rider. Trainer John Rigattieri dominated the trainer standings for the second straight year, with his 93 wins earning him the Gerry Sullivan Award. Former Eclipse Award nominee Michael Gill won an owners' title in his native New England for the first time since 2001, with 54 wins.

Suffolk officials are hopeful legislation necessary for simulcasting that was tied to the failed slots push can pass in informal sessions before the end of the year. From there, the track has pledged to be back with a 109-day May-November season in 2006.

Divisional equine awards go to Return Trick as top 2-year-old filly, Sprinkle of Gold as top 2-year-old colt, British Event as top 3-year-old filly, and Ed Miracle, top 3-year-old colt.

Joann Jr took the older female title over star Massachusetts-bred Ask Queenie, who, with no local male standouts on the grass this year, won the Joe Carney Memorial outstanding turf horse award. Ask Queenie was also named the top New England-bred.

Three top males shoehorned themselves into two awards, as Itsawonderfulife was named top older male, while his main rival for that trophy, Dhaffir, ended up sharing the outstanding sprinter award with Cherokee Sunrise.