12/08/2004 1:00AM

Beluga Star, age 7, may have best to come

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PORTLAND, Ore. - There is a new leader in the handicap division for Quarter Horses at Portland Meadows.

Beluga Star suggested as much when he edged his longtime nemesis, In Search of Fame, in the 350-yard Autumn Handicap here on Oct. 23. He confirmed it last Friday, when he surged to a length victory over longshot Mi Fames a Dandy in the 400-yard Columbia River Handicap, which he won in 20.24 seconds under rider Tim Neal. Billys Easter Boy got up for third while In Search of Fame checked in fourth in the field of 10 as the 6-5 favorite.

It was just the seventh loss from 32 starts at Portland Meadows by In Search of Fame, and it was only the third time he has finished worse than third at his favorite track. Beluga Star has now taken his measure twice in a row, however, and he did so with authority on Friday. It is as though the 8-year-old In Search of Fame is finally yielding to younger foes, except that Beluga Star is a 7-year-old himself.

"He is a very lightly-raced 7-year-old, though," noted his owner, Juan Leon. "I didn't get him until he was 4, and he never raced until he was 5. He missed his opportunities for the big money in all the futurities and derbies, but that's not all bad. He runs so hard, he probably wouldn't have lasted this long if he had run as a younger horse."

Beluga Star, a son of Juno Dat Cash who is trained by Gary Klinger, conceded a great deal of experience to his rivals in his first year of racing. He came to hand in 2003, when he won the 870-yard Mayor's Cup in a track-record 45.42 seconds, and he defended his title in that race last April. Beluga Star has now won 9 of 19 outings, and his owner feels his best races may be ahead of him.

"He is a professional now," said Leon. "He's not playing catch-up anymore. As long as he stays sound, he'll be awfully hard to beat."

Leon said Beluga Star will likely go next in the 870-yard Candy Cane Handicap on Dec. 17.

Quiz the Maid tops elders again

In Search of Fame may be the definitive horse for the Portland Meadows course, but Quiz the Maid might be on her way to becoming his Thoroughbred equivalent.

Quiz the Maid, a 3-year-old daughter of Basket Weave from the barn of trainer Jim Fergason, improved her local record to 7 wins and 2 seconds from 9 starts when she defeated older rivals in Saturday's Oregon HBPA Invitational Handicap at a mile. It was Quiz the Maid's third straight win over older foes, as she won the six-furlong Diane Kem Handicap on Oct. 23 and an invitational handicap at six furlongs on Nov. 13.

"I would have preferred to run her against 3-year-olds, but she is a Washington-bred, and the only 3-year-old races that have filled here have been for Oregon-breds," said Fergason. "She is almost 4 anyway, so it really doesn't matter. She can obviously run with the older horses."

Quiz the Maid appeared destined for defeat on Saturday, as she was blocked into the lane while Pete's Dolly drew out to a daylight advantage. She closed like a slamming door in the final furlong, however, and got up to score by a half-length in 1:39 under rider Juan Gutierrez.

"That might have been her most impressive race," Fergason said. "She was trapped for so long, I didn't know if she would have time to catch the leader. She has a lot of heart, though."

Hoonan out two months after spill

Rider Debbie Hoonan will be out at least two months after suffering multiple injuries when her mount in Friday's seventh race, T K Owe, broke down and fell on the far turn. Hoonan suffered a compound fracture of her collarbone and two broken ribs, according to her agent, Keith Drebin.

"They operated on her collarbone Friday night," said Drebin. "The doctor said he'll check her again in two months to see if she is ready to ride again."

The injury interrupted a remarkable comeback by Hoonan, who returned to riding last summer at Emerald Downs after an absence of 12 years. She was eighth in the Emerald rider standings with 52 wins and was leading at Portland Meadows with 29 wins from 140 mounts at the time of her accident.

Hoksbergen and Tonkin die

The Northwest racing community lost two respected members late last month, when trainer Larry Hoksbergen and owner Bob Tonkin died of cancer.

Hoksbergen, who was 65, campaigned regularly at Longacres and Emerald Downs.

Tonkin, who was 51, was an avid race fan at Longacres and Emerald Downs, and he campaigned a stable of horses in the Northwest since the mid-1970's. A funeral service was held last Saturday at his home in North Bend, Wash.