12/17/2003 1:00AM

Expect fierce fight for the lead


PORTLAND, Ore. - An evenly matched field of seven will contest the top offering at Portland Meadows on Friday, a six-furlong race for $4,000 claimers.

Mr. Melcap and Our Sleep Robber are both coming off wins over $3,200 claimers and may well be able to handle the modest price hike. The 4-year-old Mr. Melcap was claimed Nov. 22 by trainer Nick Lowe for owner Aaron Spillman. He came back to win his first start for his new connections on Dec. 6, when he led throughout six furlongs in 1:13.72 to prevail by three lengths over Big Al T, who will again be among his opponents on Friday.

Our Sleep Robber, a 5-year-old who races for owners Dave and Pam Wood and is trained by Eulia Bischoff, defeated Mr. Melcap on Nov. 22, when he set all the fractions en route to a three-quarter-length win in 1:13.70.

Both Mr. Melcap and Our Sleep Robber appear to do their best running on the lead, and they are not alone in that regard. Big Al T, On El Bon, and Uncle Whiz also have good speed and are often among the early leaders.

If the front-runners contest the pace too fiercely, the race could set up for late-runners Petty's Way and Capt. Jayger. Petty's Way has yet to gain his best stride at this meet, but he beat $5,000 company last summer at Grants Pass going 6 1/2 furlongs.

Capt. Jayger ran off back-to-back wins over $4,000 company at six furlongs in his first two starts at the meeting, then failed to fire when meeting $5,000 company at six furlongs in his last outing on Nov. 29.