10/26/2006 12:00AM

Perry headed south, but without horses

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Bill Perry, a leading trainer in New England for 20 years before earning national acclaim with Grade 1 winner Formal Gold and Breeders' Cup Mile runner-up North East Bound, is retiring and won't have a string at Gulfstream Park this winter.

The 59-year-old South Carolina native adopted New England as a home, winning four training titles at Suffolk Downs and scoring in the region's most important race when Let Burn took the 1983 Massachusetts Handicap.

"I need a break," said Perry while preparing to head south from New Jersey. "I don't know if it's a permanent thing, but I want to take the winter off and see how I feel. If after a couple months I feel like I want to come back, I'll look into it, but we'll see how much I like spending the winter in Florida without having to go to work."

Perry is one of several expatriate horsemen who thrived on the New England circuit in the 1980's and who were there when Suffolk experienced a renaissance in 1992 after closing for two years. He won the winter meet title in 1982 while competing with the likes of Bruce Smith, Vinny Blengs, Bobby Klesaris, and J.J. Kelly. He holds the record for most wins in a single meet when he won 140 times in a 140-day meet in 1989 and topped the standings in the fall meet of 1992 with 32 wins.

By 1994, Perry began to shift his better horses to New Jersey and Florida where the purses were fatter. While he earned his highest recognition on those circuits thanks to Formal Gold, he still feels fondly about New England.

"I liked it there, and I never wanted to leave," said Perry. "If they got slots and the purses went up the way they have at other tracks that have gotten them, I would definitely think about going back. I really enjoyed it and stalled a long time before we finally left."

Perry's stable shrank in recent years, notably after Formal Gold's owner, John D. Murphy, took his horses to other trainers.

Perry has Parkinson's disease, and said fighting the effects of the disease was only part of the reason he's backing away now.

"I'm not perfect, but I've been pretty good," he said. "I've got a good doctor and try to take my medicine when I'm supposed to."

Perry's longtime assistant Joey Prince, a Massachusetts native, will take over the string this winter, ensuring a New England connection will still be in place, not to mention the thick down-east accent.

Unfortunately, the stable will have to wait out a quarantine at Monmouth Park because of a recent equine herpesvirus outbreak.

"Joey has a couple horses, but that's if he ever makes it out of there," said Perry. "I think I'm escaping at just the right time."

* Suffolk on Saturday will hold the second of its two qualifying tournaments for the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association National Handicapping Championship. The top finisher from the $60 buy-in contest will win a berth in the finals in Las Vegas in January.