01/11/2002 12:00AM

Easy game: Just follow Valdez

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Hot-riding Felipe Valdez, who has scarcely slowed down since riding seven winners here on Dec. 23, may hold the key to Sunday's featured ninth race at Portland Meadows.

Valdez has been the regular rider for three of the top entrants in the feature, a mile race for older $2,500 claimers that has drawn a field of 10. It may be highly significant that Valdez winds up on Shy Boots, leaving the reins on Our C. C. and Oxford Circus to others.

Shy Boots would appear a strong contender in any event, after posting a showy 8 1/2-length win over restricted $2,500 foes on Dec. 22 before coming back to be beaten less than a length in a $2,500 starter allowance Dec. 30. Both of those races were run at 1 1/16 miles. Before those good tries, and before Valdez took over the mount, Shy Boots finished a distant second to Our C. C. in the one-mile Oregon Starter Handicap on Oregon-bred Day, Dec. 15.

Valdez rode Our C. C. to his resounding eight-length win on Oregon-bred Day and was again aboard for Our C. C.'s most recent race at a mile on Jan. 6, when he ran a seventh and last as the even-money favorite versus $5,000 claimers. That effort, balanced by Sunday's class drop, might normally present a quandary for bettors, but with Valdez giving up the ride on Our C. C., handicappers as well may decide to shun him.

Valdez also has been the regular rider for Oxford Circus, who ran second racing under the conditions of Sunday's race in each of his last two outings. His move to Shy Boots leaves the seat on Oxford Circus open for Nate Chaves, who is back here after a stint at Golden Gate.