05/19/2011 1:03PM

Suffolk's opening day eagerly anticipated by locals


Nobody exemplifies the eagerness to get back to racing in New England more than jockey Tammi Piermarini. The reigning riding champ, she gets that chance Saturday, when Suffolk Downs opens the 2011 season.

While track officials and horsemen endured an acrimonious winter over purse levels and reeled from yet another legislative setback last year, Piermarini took her act cross-country, riding once at Santa Anita and working her way back east via Arizona and Iowa.

“New England is home, and this is where all my business is,” said Piermarini, a 44-year-old mother of three. “The trainers and owners here are like family. I don’t think there’s anyone who isn’t feeling optimistic.”

Piermarini points to how quickly Saturday’s nine-race card closed with 71 entrants on the program, which is set to begin at 1:15 p.m. alongside the Preakness Day simulcasts.

Racing will resume Monday with a 12:45 p.m. first post, beginning a three-day-per-week schedule on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays through November. Other days will be added to the schedule later this year once legislation regarding how many days Suffolk must run to simulcast is addressed. Current law calls for 100 days, but the track and horsemen have agreed on 80 cards with more than $103,000 in daily purses.

Legislation to allow that reduction has been held up in the statehouse. The measure is expected to come up again soon along with another round of proposals for expanded gaming in Massachusetts. Despite a slots bill falling apart at the 11th-hour last summer, Suffolk officials remain confident of their position should casinos finally pass. They entered into an agreement with Harrah’s in April with that in mind.

Piermarini is more eager to talk actual jockeying, and not the political kind. She will ride the entire card Saturday and is focused on reaching her 2,000th win. She enters with 1,938 wins. With 119 victories at Suffolk last year easily earning her the riding title, a healthy run in 2011 should allow her to hit that mark this summer.

“I’m absolutely looking for another title,” she said. “We just want to get off on the right foot Saturday and get a winning start.”

Piermarini’s usual top rival, Winston Thompson, is recovering from a leg injury and will miss opening day. The five-time leading jockey was hurt while exercising horses for trainer Todd Pletcher in New York and hopes to return later this month.

Trainers John Rigattieri and Marcus Vitali are expected to battle for top honors all season. The one-two finishers in last year’s standings, they will start fast Saturday with Rigattieri saddling three runners and Vitali saddling four.