05/05/2004 11:00PM

Rigattieri gets jump on Florida snowbirds


EAST BOSTON, Mass. - As horses trickle into Suffolk Downs, it's clear after three days of racing that runners with Maryland form are ready right off the van.

Leading the charge has been trainer John Rigattieri, who has won six races by seamlessly transplanting his barn from the Free State to the Bay State. He has outshone perennial leading trainer Ron Dandy early on through a combination of good luck and good planning.

"I was looking forward to a good start," said Rigattieri. "I knew I had the kind of runners that would run well right away."

Logistics have played a major role in giving Maryland shippers an edge. When a sinkhole severely damaged Suffolk's main track at the beginning of April, Rigattieri and other New England trainers were able to stay at Pimlico and Bowie while the track was being repaired. The horsemen wintering at Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park were forced to suspend shipping plans, and have put a squeeze on horse vans now that those meets have concluded. With no shipping worries, Rigattieri could point more horses for the opening week.

"I didn't miss any training time at all by getting to stay in Maryland," said Rigattieri. "My horses are coming up to these races fitter. Getting to stay has to be giving me an edge. There were horses training and racing at Gulfstream and Tampa, though. They'll start running up here soon."

Rigattieri says it's too early to talk about unseating Dandy for the training title, but he was able to rack up more victories over the winter than Dandy.

Hampshire pulling for old pal

After a winter in New York and Maryland, nine-time leading rider Joe Hampshsire displayed his brilliance last Saturday by winning the last four races on the Suffolk card.

Hampshire is a native Philadelphian and said he was rooting hard for his friend Stewart Elliott in the Kentucky Derby last weekend.

"I had won four races that day, but all I could think to myself was, 'My buddy Stewie just won the Kentucky Derby,' " he said. "It brings hope to all of us at the smaller places like this that you don't have to be big time to get lucky and get a great horse like that."

Elliott was the leading jockey at Suffolk in 1984, 1985, and 1989 and raced on the New England circuit into the mid 1990's.

* Suffolk expects approval from the Massachusetts State Racing Commission by this weekend to cancel next Tuesday's program because of a shortage of horses. In addition, a planned doubleheader program for Preakness Day will also likely be scrapped.

* New England racing fans should be watching next Friday's Pimlico Special carefully as several of the runners, including last year's Derby winner Funny Cide, are expected to point to the Massachusetts Handicap on June 19.