04/28/2004 11:00PM

Six months of dark days finally over

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - For New England's horsemen and horseplayers, Saturday marks the end of the longest winter in many years as Suffolk Downs returns for the 2004 season after six dark months.

Suffolk is embarking on a 150-day meeting from May 1 through Nov. 30 as the lone major track left on the once thriving New England circuit. The decision to shift to this schedule forced horsemen to relocate or lay up horses for the entire winter, and there was concern about how many would make it back after the long break. For the most part, those concerns have passed as the barn area has repopulated with most of the area's top performers.

"We're looking forward to getting started," said track president John Hall. "It was a great relief not to race in the winter, given the extreme cold that we had. We are expecting to put on a good show. Based on the number of people who have been coming to the track for simulcasting, interest in the sport is going strong. We've had huge crowds for the Derby prep races and we've already sold out our dining room for Saturday."

The Grade 2, $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap on June 19, returning after a year's absence, will be the highlight of the season. The connections of top handicap stars Funny Cide, Peace Rules, and Evening Attire have all mentioned the Mass Cap as part of their early-summer schedules. In addition, the $200,000 James Moseley Breeders' Cup Handicap, a sprint, will be run the same day.

"Everyone at the track is very excited about the return of the Mass Cap and we're pleased with the June 19 date," said Hall. "We understand that the race is on Funny Cide's schedule and we've heard from some trainers of other prominent handicap horses, too, so we're expecting a strong field."

The opening day feature on the nine-race card is the $40,000 Miss Indy Anna Stakes for fillies and mares at six furlongs. Quick Smoke, who was fourth in the Primonetta Stakes at Pimlico on April 3, will be one of the favorites after winning four races at Suffolk last year for trainer Frank Shannon.

Partying, who wintered at Gulfstream Park with trainer Mike Aro, and But Mommy, who was on the board in two stakes after winning three straight for trainer John Rigattieri, will also be top contenders.

A three-week delay in the opening of training because of a sinkhole in the track left many horses without a place to work, canceling plans for a 14-race doubleheader Saturday. Crews finished repairs on the track last weekend.

At a glance: Suffolk

RACING SCHEDULE: 150 days; May 1 through Nov. 30; dark Thursdays and Sundays; Friday racing June 11 through Aug. 27 and Sept. 24 - Nov. 26.

POST TIME: 12:45 p.m. Eastern

HIGHLIGHTS: Grade 2, $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap and $200,000 James Moseley BC Handicap, June 19

ADMISSIONS: General, $2; clubhouse $4.

PARKING: General parking, free; preferred, $2; valet, $4;

LOCATION: Route 1A, about one mile north of Logan Airport; Suffolk Downs Blue Line T-stop

PHONE: (617) 567-3900

INTERNET: www.suffolkdowns.com