12/30/2002 12:00AM

Six months of Suffolk - at least

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - The New Year's Day program begins a scheduled six-month run of racing at Suffolk Downs, but with Rockingham Park announcing it would not hold a Thoroughbred meet this summer, the Suffolk season could continue past the scheduled closing day of June 7.

Suffolk Downs has raised purses considerably over the past year thanks to a bailout package signed into law late in 2001, and stakes purses this meet have been elevated to $35,000 a race - a 40 percent increase over the end of 2001. The move will keep Suffolk stakes listed as black-type races in breeding catalogs.

There will be seven open stakes races during the first half of the winter meet and six Massachusetts-bred stakes, including the new $50,000 Ernie Lowe Stallion Stakes March 15. That race is the first for horses bred in the state by sires that stand in the state. It's named after the former prominent trainer who died this past summer.

The stakes schedule for the latter half of the winter-spring meet will be announced later, but the track's showcase event, the Grade 2 Massachusetts Handicap, is set for May 31.

Suffolk will race run on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday through the winter with nine races per day. Doubleheaders are scheduled for selected Saturdays in May and June.

With Massachusetts stuck in a deep budgetary hole, track officials are optimistic that expanded gaming will become a reality.

"I think it's a make-or-break year," said Bob O'Malley, Suffolk Downs chief operating officer. "Gaming is the key. It would really help racing here, but without it I'd have grave concerns about racing."

Jockey Joe Hampshire and trainer Ron Dandy are back for this year after having won titles last year. Last year, Hampshire had 300 victories for the first time in his career. Dandy overcame a 30-day suspension stemming from a positive drug test in September to win his ninth straight training title.