01/22/2004 12:00AM

With most of his competition absent, Yesss is heavy favorite


PORTLAND, Ore. - The handicap ranks at Portland Meadows has grown awfully thin.

Zip the Bright, the winner of the one-mile Thanksgiving Handicap here Nov. 28, has been turned out until spring, as has third-place finisher Slewicide Cruise. Runner-up Lethal Grande, who won the Inaugural Handicap earlier in the meet, was sent to Golden Gate. And Cee Cruiser, who captured the Oregon His Stakes here on Oregon-bred Day, Dec. 13, is preparing for his first start at Turf Paradise.

That's one reason why Yesss will be an overwhelming favorite in Saturday's $10,000 William Kyne Handicap at 1 1/8 miles, a race he has won in each of the last two years. The other reason is that Yesss, a 6-year-old son of Abstract, has always been a good horse and appears to be getting better.

Yesss, whose 11 wins from 34 starts include six stakes victories, is coming off a sharp score over Lethal Grande in the Oregon Sprint Championship on Dec. 13, when he went six furlongs in 1:11.60 to earn a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 86.

"That was one of his best races, and it wasn't even at his best distance," said assistant trainer Ben Webb, whose mother, Shirley, owns Yesss, and whose father, Delmer, trains him. "I really think he is as good as he has ever been right now."

Webb maintains that Yesss is at his peak despite missing eight days of training, a plight shared by every other horse on the grounds because of the ice storm that closed the track from Jan. 5 through Jan. 12.

"For a horse like Yesss, who had been training and racing steadily, the break was a good thing," he said. "He is still plenty fit, and the vacation freshened him up. He has been acting like an animal around the barn."

Though he is confident of his horse's conditioning and ability, Webb is taking nothing for granted.

"I've never led one over there knowing I was going to win," he said. "There is no such thing as a shoe-in. All the same, I'll be very surprised if he doesn't run well."

Making sure silks go smoothly

Fans have no doubt noticed that owners' silks have been in use at the current meeting, but does anybody remember when they were last used here?

"It has been at least 42 years," said Jerry Webb, the jockey room's superintendent. "That's how long I've been here, and we've used standard silks the whole time."

The transition to owners' silks, which was requested by the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and readily agreed to by management, has gone remarkably smoothly. For that, the credit goes to Alex Christian.

Christian, a former rider and trainer who is still in demand as an exercise rider, began handling the silks at Emerald Downs when that track opened in 1996. He was recruited to take over the local silks room last fall, and he set about to impose order on the chaos of 500 sets of individual silks so that he could get the right colors on the appropriate riders before every race.

Christian's system is to sort the silks alphabetically by trainer and to keep them on hooks in the silks room. He arrives 2 1/2 hours before first post every racing day, program in hand, to find and organize the silks that will be used that day. Beginning with the last race and working backward through the program, he hangs the silks to be worn by each jockey on a peg near his or her locker, so that the rider need only put on the top pair before the race.

"The system is simple until you have an owner running several horses on the same card," Christian said. "The other day, for example, Sue Gilmour had four horses in the first five races, and she had one set of silks. The track was muddy, so I had to wash the silks every time they were used, and there just wasn't enough time. All I could do was to try to find other silks that matched Sue's as closely as possible."

Silks - the shirts and caps worn by riders - are misnamed, as almost all are now made of synthetic fabrics, which are lighter, more water resistant, and dry more quickly. They may be equipped with zippers, snaps, buttons, or Velcro, or they may be pullovers.

With owners' silks, unique colors and designs are chosen by owners, and they are registered with state racing commissions to prevent duplication. They can cost up to $160 a set, but Christian said most of the local silks are made by Portland resident Barb Kowalski for about half that amount.

* The Portland Meadows handicapping contest that had been scheduled for Jan. 9-11, which was canceled because of snow and ice, will be held Feb. 13-15. The entry fee is $200, and the payout is guaranteed to be at least $10,500.