02/26/2003 1:00AM

Marathon start portends exciting finish

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PORTLAND, Ore. - At a mere nine furlongs, last Sunday's split divisions of the first of four legs in the Marathon Series were really just preps for the true marathons to come. They were, however, preps that promised some rollicking good racing.

Full fields of 10 contested both divisions of the first leg, with Produckson edging G and L Special by a half-length in the first division, which was run in 1:53.60. Mr. Fix ran third as the favorite after being denied the lead, which he clearly needs for his best effort.

From Mars won the second division in 1:54.40, drawing away late to prevail by 1 1/4 lengths over Rattlesnake Ridge, with the stoutly bred Dancinonadare finishing strongly for third while looking for more ground.

The six in-the-money horses will surely move on to the 1 1/4-mile leg of the series on March 16. They will probably be joined by at least a half-dozen others who raced on Sunday and a couple more who skipped those races.

"I think there is a good chance I'll be able to split the next leg as well," said director of racing Jerry Kohls. "At the very least, we'll have a full field for that race and nearly full fields for the last two. It should be a lot of fun for the fans."

The fans took a keen interest in Sunday's marathons, wagering $71,259, or 35 percent of the total of $203,995 bet on the nine-race card, on those two races. The series concludes with a two-mile race for a $10,000 purse on April 27.

Looking to the future

Trying to project which horses will remain competitive as the distances increase to 10, 12, and finally 16 furlongs is a perilous game, but it is nearly irresistible for handicappers. Based on breeding, it's hard to get past Produckson, who is by this state's top distance sire, Boutinierre, and out of a mare by Le Fabuleux, a premier source of stamina. Rattlesnake Ridge, a big, ungainly galloper, suddenly looked comfortable in the longest race of his career on Sunday. And From Mars, though something of an in-and-outer, must always be respected for his considerable talent.

Claimed from three successive races for $4,000 by leading trainers Jim Ferguson, Jonathan Nance, and Nick Lowe - all of whom had their eyes on the Marathon Series - From Mars threw a clinker in his race before his win Sunday, finishing a distant seventh in a 1 1/16-mile race for $4,000 claimers.

"We were pretty disappointed, and the only thing I could think of to do was to go back to the rider who had gotten the most out of him in the past," said Lowe. "He had run two huge races, and Melissa Peery was up for both of them."

Peery again worked her magic with From Mars on Sunday, who won despite racing very wide on the last turn. "He doesn't like being near other horses," Peery said. "He's not the bravest horse, and he gets intimidated. But if you can save ground early and then circle them when you ask him to run, he'll run his heart out."

Moonlit Maddie takes top award

Moonlit Maddie was named Oregon's horse of the year for 2002 at the Oregon Thoroughbred Breeders Association's annual awards banquet last Saturday night. Moonlit Maddie, a 5-year-old daughter of Abstract who races for George Hurliman, won 4 of 9 starts last year, all at Turf Paradise and Canterbury, including a stakes and three allowances. She had $58,604 in earnings.

Other Oregon-bred awards went to Our Lucky Kiss for 2-year-old filly; Glad to Be Here, 2-year-old colt or gelding; Absolutism, 3-year-old filly; Lethal Grande, 3-year-old colt or gelding; and Eternal Secrecy, older horse or gelding. La Bardot, the dam of Lethal Grande, was named broodmare of the year, and Abstract was named sire of the year.

Breeders and owners Bruce and Nita Loudin were honored as breeders of the year and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association award recipients.

Gutierrez recovering from spill

Leading rider Juan Gutierrez missed last weekend's racing after being shaken up when his mount in Friday's fifth race, I Ninty, suffered a fatal breakdown and fell. Gutierrez will also miss this Friday, but may resume riding Saturday or Sunday.

"He is still pretty sore, so we don't want to rush him back into action too soon," said agent Keith Drebin. "I don't want to take calls for him on the hope that he'll be okay by race day. I want him to be sure he is 100 percent."