04/30/2009 12:00AM

Things looking up as season starts


The political environment for horse racing in Massachusetts has never been better as Suffolk Downs opens its 2009 season Saturday.

The seven-month Suffolk meet begins with a nine-race card, and optimism is high, as it has been in the previous two seasons since majority owner Richard Fields swept into East Boston. The economy promises to hamper the short term significantly, but Suffolk officials believe the slot machines they say are necessary in the long term are not far away.

"These are challenging times for horse racing in general," said the track's president, Chip Tuttle. "We've been talking about expanded gaming here for 15 years, but this is the first time when all three legislative leaders of the government have expressed support for it."

Suffolk became optimistic this winter when Rep. Robert Deleo of the district where the track is located was elevated to the powerful position of house speaker. The previous two holders of the house leadership post fought against slots at the track. In contrast, Deleo is very supportive, and his father was once maitre d' at Suffolk's turf club.

"The governor is supportive," said Tuttle. "The senate president has voted for it in the past, and now the house speaker has made no secret about thinking slots at the track would be a good idea. They have a lot of things to deal with before they get to us, but their acknowledgment helps."

While fans, horsemen and officials wait for legislative help, Suffolk will try and build off the success begun when Fields landed in Boston after his failed run at the New York Racing Association franchise in 2007.

The track has done a good job of attracting horsemen who wintered at Tampa Bay Downs. Giuseppe Iasidirnia will keep a string at Suffolk that will include graded stakes winner Delosvientos. Last year's leading trainers John Rigattieri, Rafael Ramos, and the father-son team of Charlie and John Assimakopolous are back as well.

The high point of the meet will be the Grade 3 Massachusetts Handicap, even though a date and purse have not yet been set. It is tentatively planned for the fall, as it has been since its latest revival two years ago. Officials are trying to determine what date will help the race work best ahead of the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 7. Suffolk has always structured the purse to attract marquee horses and lured two-time Whitney Handicap winner Commentator to his victorious appearance in the 1 1/8-mile race last year.

First post Saturday, as well as Preakness and Belmont Stakes days, will be 1:15 p.m. Most other days it will be 12:45. In May, racing takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays as well as the Sunday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend. Starting in June, a four-day schedule comes on line with cards on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays. and Saturdays through the end of the season Nov. 7.

Fans who make a $5 donation to the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund on opening day will receive a 2009 season pass. Representatives of the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund will be on hand to host a silent auction of Boston sports memorabilia.