01/09/2003 1:00AM

Rippling Return to defend Duncan

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Suffolk Downs begins its 2003 open stakes schedule Saturday with the $35,000 Floyd Duncan Stakes, and Boston's best fillies and mares will have to beat the returning champion, Rippling Return.

The six-furlong Duncan is loaded with speedsters, including the defending title-holder, who will be making her first start since last summer for Philadelphia Park-based trainer Ned Allard.

Last year, Rippling Return came into the Duncan off two impressive runaway victories and a seven-week freshening. This year Allard has taken his time with Rippling Return, a daughter of Forest Wildcat, building her up to this return to action with a bullet workout on New Year's Eve.

While her one victory over the track was solid, the competition has a collective 34 wins on the local surface. Prominent among them is Seminole Gal, who is 3 for 3 at Suffolk.

Seminole Gal has stormed through her three races since coming to town for P & G Stable and trainer Ron Dandy, with storm being the operative word. All three of her efforts came over sloppy tracks. Considering that there has been precipitation in the area every weekend for the past two months, Seminole Gal's 5-for-7 career record on off tracks will probably need to be factored in again.

Vernon Bush will ride Seminole Gal in the Duncan.

Special Jule turned in one of the biggest recent performances of the 12 entrants in her last race with a nine-length romp for trainer Charlie Assimakopoulos. The perennial leading stakes trainer at Suffolk, Assimakopoulos was shut out from added-money wins for the entire fall meet but plans to wheel out his barn's big guns gradually throughout the meet.

Crescent Coast, winner of the Columbus Day Stakes, will try to bounce back from a third-place run at short odds in an allowance race Dec. 30. She is the lone runner in the full field who can claim a Grade 1 start, having finished up the track behind Critical Eye in the 2001 Hempstead Handicap at Belmont.

Hampshire out for the weekend

Joe Hampshire will miss riding this weekend, putting an end to the final chapter of his dramatic run to 300 victories in 2002.

After a sizzling fall meet, Hampshire appeared a lock to earn 300 wins for the first time in his career until a mild slump hit in December.

With two racing days left in the year, Hampshire rode New England's horse of the year, Esteemed Friend, to the milestone, only to be taken down in a controversial disqualification.

Hampshire was able to take advantage of a makeup day on Dec. 30 and officially get his 300th score, but he had to put off the suspension he received for the riding infraction with Esteemed Friend and will have to miss this Saturday and Monday.

Phillips gets first win

Apprentice Mark Phillips, the latest young Irish-born rider to try his hand in New England, broke through with his first career victory in Wednesday's first race.

The 17-year-old Dublin native needed 53 tries to score his first win after attending a riding academy in Ireland and starting out in the yard of top trainer Aiden O'Brien.

Phillips initially tried U.S. racing in New York before coming to Suffolk last month, following in the footsteps of Helena Keaveney, the young Irish rider who took the same path in 2001.

Tejano Couture back for more

After being rained out last Saturday, Tejano Couture, who finished 2002 as the winningest horse in North America, gets a chance again this week to start a new campaign in today's seventh race - an $8,000 claimer.

The 9-year-old Tejano Couture had a career season in 2002, winning 11 times from 26 starts and doubling his victory total from before he started for trainer Mike Collins.

Tejano Couture was once a graded stakes runner, most notably finishing fourth in the Grade 2 Jerome Handicap at Belmont in 1997. Most of his success last year came in starter allowance races until a troubled trip in early November forced him to pull up.

He has since lost two races by double-digit lengths, but he will start this year with a new rider, Anthony Esposito.