05/02/2007 11:00PM

New meet is Suffolk's first with new owners


New owners are at the helm of Suffolk Downs as Boston's racetrack starts the 2007 season, the first since the death of longtime executive Bob O'Malley in February.

The 102-day meeting, which runs through Nov. 10, will be the first since real estate developer Richard Fields became the largest shareholder on the Suffolk board through his company, Coastal Development Massachusetts. Fields is also one of the principals of Excelsior Racing, one of the groups bidding to take over the racing franchise in New York.

The ownership change has brought a feeling of optimism to a track that has fallen on hard times due to legislative setbacks and competition for gambling dollars from casinos in Connecticut. Also a blow was the loss of O'Malley, who guided Suffolk through highs and lows for five decades until he lost his fight with cancer Feb. 25.

Helping buoy the optimism are purse increases of 5 to 6.9 percent for allowance and maiden races, and larger boosts of 10 to 14.3 percent for claiming and starter races. They are encouraging signs to horsemen and racing fans who are unfamiliar with Fields and who wonder what the newcomer's commitment will be to racing in New England.

"In my view, opening day is the beginning of a new era in racing at Suffolk Downs," said Fields. "I believe strongly that horse racing can thrive in Boston."

Beyond the executive-level changes, Suffolk will feature dime superfectas for the first time and will hold two-day racing weeks early in May.

The track's signature stakes, the Massachusetts Handicap, was not run in 2003, 2005, or 2006 in order to support daily purses. No decision has been made on whether the Mass Cap will be run in 2007.

John Rigattieri goes for his fourth straight training title, although he will also keep a stable of horses at Monmouth when that track opens next Saturday. He is coming off a second-place finish this winter at Laurel.

Also back is jockey Winston Thompson, who, like Rigattieri, has won three straight meet titles.

Opening day features the launch of a weekly handicapping seminar and a radio show. The seminar, hosted by track announcer Larry Collmus and analyst Pat Lamberty, starts on Derby Day at 10:15 a.m. The radio show will air every Saturday on 1050 AM "The Zone" from 8-9 a.m.

Racing takes place every Wednesday and Saturday all season. Monday racing starts May 21. Sunday racing will be added from June through August, then Tuesdays replace the Sunday programs in September and October. Saturday's first-race post time is 12:55 p.m., but will be 12:45 the rest of the meet.