02/01/2002 1:00AM

Forget blinkers - earmuffs Weaver's secret weapon

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Bettors are routinely informed when horses are given Lasix or phenylbutazone, and when they wear blinkers or front wraps. Will earmuffs be next?

Trainer Jerry Weaver has been making a case they should be. Weaver outfitted his talented but underachieving filly Little Nat with earmuffs - which are simply blinkers, with or without the cups but with ear covers built in - at Emerald Downs last summer for her fourth start. She improved dramatically to finish fourth that day, then posted back-to-back wins at Portland Meadows in her next two starts.

Next, Weaver tried earmuffs on Get Back Lorreta, a half-sister to multiple stakes winner Spinelessjellyfish. Get Back Lorreta was still a maiden after five starts, but she responded to earmuffs with a smart victory Jan. 13. Most recently, he put earmuffs on Devilish Delight, who hadn't finished in the money in over a year, and she jumped up to run a good second in a claiming race Jan. 26.

"They definitely seem to help some horses," said Weaver. "I first tried them a couple of years ago when Walla Walla Sweet was a 3-year-old. The first two times I ran her she dumped her rider coming out of the paddock and she didn't run a jump. I felt she had been spooked by noises, so I had a set of earmuffs made and put them on her for her third start. She won off by 10 lengths."

Although earmuffs are not frequently used on racehorses, they have been employed successfully on occasion. One of the most prominent horses to be equipped with them was Gate Dancer, winner of the 1984 Preakness and $2.5 million for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg.

Weaver has some theories why earmuffs have appeared to help some of his horses.

"I think some horses are bothered by noise, whether it be the sound of the other horses or the sound of the crowd," he said. "Of course we don't have the crowd noise that we had years ago, but you have to remember that horses hear a lot better than we do and they are used to going to the track in the morning when it is very quiet. Just a few people yelling might be enough to upset some of them and cause them to lose concentration."

Weaver has tried earmuffs on only four horses. Given the results, however, he may try them on others.

"I have only used them on horses who showed signs of being distracted," he said. "I'd be reluctant to try them on a horse who doesn't need them, because I want my horses to be able to hear other horses coming up to them."

Weaver said his next candidate for earmuffs is Rooster Rock, who ran second in the 2000 Oregon Futurity but remains a maiden after 12 starts.

Bred to be a star

Future Leader, who upset a good field of allowance sprinters in last Sunday's eighth race at Portland Meadows, is not the best horse on the grounds. But in all likelihood, he is the best-bred horse here.

Future Leader is a 6-year-old horse by Olympio out of Darien Miss, who earned more than $600,000. Future Leader is a half-brother to two-time Grade 1 winner Fleet Renee, two-time Grade 2 stakes winner Future Quest, and stakes winner Alzora.

Despite his illustrious family, Future Leader failed to finish in the money in eight starts in Southern California for trainer Ron McAnally, so he was sold last year to local owner Steve Porter. He has since posted two wins and a second for trainer Brandon Porter.

"I'm sure they were very disappointed with him in California, but we love him here," said Porter. "Now that he has a couple of wins and his confidence is up, maybe he'll start running to his pedigree."

Hovis joins commission

Washington Governor Gary Locke has appointed James Hovis of Yakima to fill the vacancy created when Dolores Sibonga resigned from the Washington Horse Racing Commission last year.

Hovis, a former U. S. district court judge in eastern Washington who served on the WHRC in 1983-84, took his seat on the commission at a meeting in Auburn on Wednesday.