08/27/2003 12:00AM

Last of the Mass. fairs has Thoroughbreds to itself


NORTHAMPTON, Mass. - With its quaint setting in the Berkshire Mountains, the Northampton Fair is a throwback to old-time rural New England. Officials are hoping that its 10 days of racing, beginning Friday, will be a throwback to the glory days of Massachusetts's vibrant fair circuit.

Northampton is the last survivor of several agricultural fairs that used parimutuel racing to pay the bills, and in recent years it has been close to joining the likes of Marshfield, Great Barrington, and Brockton in their demise. This year, with Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H., switching to harness racing, Northampton gets a reprieve and will have the entire Thoroughbred stage in New England to itself.

Rockingham officials frowned on horses leaving the track to run at the fairs. In contrast, Suffolk Downs is welcoming the break from the long year and is cooperating with Northampton, notably by deciding not to count conditioned-claiming-race wins at the fair against a horse's eligibility when racing returns to Suffolk Sept. 15.

"With no competition, we're looking at a lot more horses filling the races, said Sandy Stanisewski, the fair's director of racing. "We've got a hundred more horses staying here, and there will be a lot of shippers coming from Boston every day. Hopefully the weather will be good."

Northampton is for blue-collar horses, but this season even leading barns will be taking a shot over the half-mile track.

"This is going to be the toughest the fair has been in years," said Suffolk's leading trainer, Ron Dandy, who expects to start a few horses. "The fairs are great, and I really hope they get back some of what they had in the past."

Most top riders at Suffolk will take advantage of the vacation, and jockeys who usually get only one or two mounts a week tend to make the fair their biggest time of the year. Willie Belmonte is the only jockey in Suffolk's top 25 who will be picking up mounts at the fair. Other regular fair riders include Howard Lanci, Al Howarth, Frankie Cotrone, and Mark Slavin.

Racing takes place over the next three weekends - Friday, Saturday, and Sunday - with a special card on Labor Day. The Three County Agricultural Fair will be conducted alongside the racing during this weekend only.

Racing highlights include the Fair Challenge, a series sponsored by horse owner Michael Gill that ties together two $5,000 races - on Aug. 30 and Sept. 13 - with a $2,000 bonus to any horse who can sweep both events. The Labor Day Marathon at 1 5/8 miles is scheduled for Monday, and the $15,000 Northampton Handicap for statebreds is Sept. 6. Also, the infamous Zippy Chippy is expected to try to end his record-breaking losing streak at some point during the meet.

The meet will be simulcast across New England, but this year the network has been expanded to offtrack sites in New York and Pennsylvania.

Familiar faces win Suffolk titles

At the Suffolk Downs meet that just ended, Dandy was the leading trainer for the 10th straight time. Joe Hampshire Jr. won his sixth straight riding title. Yasou Stable Trust nipped two other owners to take that title for the sixth time in the past 10 seasons.

Because of the extended summer meet, Suffolk horsemen have been warned to expect smaller purses and fewer races when racing returns in three weeks.

At a glance: Northampton

RACING SCHEDULE: 10 days; Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Aug. 29 through Sept. 14, plus Labor Day, Sept. 1

POST TIME: 1:30 p.m. Eastern

ADMISSIONS: Free to racetrack - Fair admission is $7 for adults and $4 for children ages 4-12

HIGHLIGHTS: $15,000 Northampton Handicap, Sept. 6

LOCATION: Exit 4 off Interstate 91 in Northampton, Mass.

SIMULCASTING: Available on live racing days

PHONE: (413) 584-2237

INTERNET: www.threecountyfair.com