02/11/2004 12:00AM

Maria Kay set to end drought

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Maria Kay might have found a group she can beat Friday at Portland Meadows when she goes postward in a 4 1/2-furlong race for fillies and mares eligible to be claimed for $5,000.

Maria Kay, a 5-year-old who races for trainer Fred Hepton, appeared to have a bright future in November 2002 when she ran second to the formidable Icicle Angel in the six-furlong Diane Kem Stakes. She failed to win in three subsequent starts that year, however, and was winless in four starts last year.

Maria Kay showed signs of life in her last start on Jan. 31, when she led a field of $6,250 claimers into the stretch before weakening to finish fifth, beaten 2 1/4 lengths in 1:14.50 for six furlongs. With a slight class drop on Friday and a cutback in distance, the speedy Maria Kay could prove difficult to overhaul under rider Joe Crispin at 119 pounds.

Heading the opposition in the field of seven is Black Barry Velvet, who comes off a front-running win at 4 1/2 furlongs versus $2,500 company on Jan. 23. Black Barry Velvet, a 6-year-old trained by Bob Beckner, seems certain to challenge Maria Kay early, as she has been on the early lead in each of her last 10 starts. She breaks from the outside post position, however, and will be stepping up significantly in class.

Should a speed duel develop, Rated Up Blue figures to benefit the most. The late-running Rated Up Blue got up in time to defeat $2,500 rivals at 4 1/2 furlongs earlier in the meeting and seems certain to be gaining ground late.