05/22/2003 12:00AM

Rain could force Moran off the turf

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Saturday will have an opening-day feel at Suffolk Downs following a dark week to install a new dirt surface.

The weather might not cooperate with the other major opening of the weekend, however, as the Thomas F. Moran Stakes on Saturday is the first race of the year scheduled for the turf course. There are 11 Massachusetts-breds entered in the 1 1/16-mile race, but expected rain could force the Moran to the dirt and delay the opening of the grass course for a few days.

The Manfred Roos-owned entry of Stylish Sultan and Sunlit Ridge will be formidable regardless of the surface. Sunlit Ridge is the preferred runner if the weather somehow allows for grass racing, considering her 8-for-15 record on the turf and proven ability against males. Stylish Sultan has won his last two races. Both were statebred stakes contested on off tracks. He needs at least one scratch to draw into the race.

Papa Ho Ho won this race in 1998 and 1999, and the 10-year-old is a legitimate threat on either surface. He won the Rise Jim Stakes in February.

Monsterous Mitch is to make his first start of the year, although he probably won't run if the race comes off the turf. The 5-year-old Monsterous Mitch won twice on the grass at Rockingham last year and has been worse than second in only one of his six turf starts.

Trainer Lori Lockhart entered Weepecket in the Moran despite an all-out effort to finish second in the Drumtop Handicap last week. The 6-year-old Weepecket has two turf wins, and would relish the chance to take on statebred competition around two-turns after four losses in open company this year.

Dirt course rebuilt to retain moisture

It will still be safe to look for horses for courses on the Suffolk turf, but horses that have performed well on the dirt here will have a clean slate now that the track composition has changed.

"The main thing is to move to a course that retains moisture, which is the opposite of what we've had here with winter racing," said Bob O'Malley, Suffolk's chief operating officer. "There's more of a finer material that will keep the course from drying out."

Under the guidance of track superintendent Glen Kozak and general superintendent Steve Pini, workers began the changeover minutes after the last horse stepped off the track from last Sunday's Hot Dog Safari program. It has taken the entire time to complete the work, clean up after Sunday's estimated crowd of 40,000, and landscape and beautify the paddock, winner's circle, and tote board.

What they can't control is the weather and how that will affect the turf course.

"The turf will be a problem all summer because we can't move the rail," said O'Malley. "It might even be a blessing that we don't get out there this weekend because with all the tough weather we could use as much time for growing as we can get. We have to watch out for it getting chewed up. The only solution is to use it sparingly in June, July, and August and hopefully give it a break before the fall."