01/30/2003 1:00AM

Young Irishman acclimating nicely

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EAST BOSTON, MASS. - There's a bug buzz in Boston again.

Suffolk Downs has often been the launchpad for apprentice careers, and Mark Phillips appears to have the talent to be the latest to cut his teeth on New England racing.

A 17-year-old native of Dublin, Ireland, Phillips has been racing for just six months in the United States after two years of schooling in riding academies and at The Curragh back home.

Despite never before venturing far from Dublin, he made his way to New York early in 2002 to try and break in with the help of trainer Leo O'Brien. Phillips quickly learned that breaking in at Belmont would be just as difficult as back home. A meeting with Max Hall, a New England-based jockey agent, steered him toward Suffolk, and he has picked up steam in the past two weeks.

"I met Max Hall and he introduced me to his son-in-law, Dennis Panza," - another jockey agent - "and they've brought the opportunities to me at Suffolk," said Phillips. "It was hard the first couple of months, but now I love it. I've been dreaming about this all my life."

Phillips earned his first career victory just three weeks ago, but he has flown up the standings to third place, behind Taylor Hole and Phillips's mentor, Joe Hampshire. Phillips got his first hat trick Wednesday, winning three races on a day when Hampshire won four. Phillips credits his close relationships with Hall, Hampshire, and Panza as reasons for the fast start to his career.

"Every night after supper Dennis takes me over to Max's house to watch tapes of great riders like Pincay and Bailey and all the top riders," said Phillips. "They help me to be aware of the mistakes you can make out there. In the [jockeys] room, Joe really helps me go over the replays. They just help me stay aware and let me just keep my head down and work hard every morning. The rest has been fun."

The fun he is having in Boston is likely to continue. Phillips will have his apprentice allowance for the entire year and has no immediate plans to take it anyplace else.

"I'm really comfortable here," he said. "There are so many Irish people, it's like being at home. I feel like I fit in here. And I'm looking forward to turf racing. I really enjoy that."

Looking for number one

Trainer Karl Grusmark has been shut out this meet, but he is wheeling out his biggest gun for Saturday's $35,000 Rise Jim Stakes when Jini's Jet defends his title in the Rise Jim, a sprint for Massachusetts-breds.

Grusmark's 0-for-28 slump might seem a heavy enough burden to overcome, but Jini's Jet's record means he will have a more tangible 128-pound handicap when he takes on six rivals.

"He got no break in the weights. That's for sure," said Grusmark. "It might be seen as a compliment to his ability, but giving away weight is always a disadvantage. He's giving away a huge amount, but I think it's less of a factor at three-quarters versus going 1 1/16. He's a big strong horse. He's working well. I'm very happy with him right now."

The 5-year-old Jini's Jet won the John Kirby Stakes by six lengths in his last outing to run his Suffolk record to 10 wins in 15 starts. He has won his last three Massachusetts-bred stakes races, dating back to last June.

Regular jockey Dyn Panell, who was aboard for Jini's Jet's quick 36.80-second workout Wednesday, will be in the saddle.

Papa Ho Ho - the last statebred to finish ahead of Jini's Jet - returns in the Rise Jim looking to avenge his loss in the Kirby last time. The 10-year-old Papa Ho Ho has spent most of his career racing around two turns and will be at a disadvantage to Jini's Jet in this sprint unless he gets some pace help.

Jamie's Melody won wire to wire last time and posted a strong Beyer Speed Figure of 75, but the victory came in a $5,000 claiming race.

Former New England champion Sunlit Ridge and Expensive Verdict - the obligatory Mass.-bred stakes entry from trainer Lori Lockhart - are both mares taking on males.