10/22/2002 11:00PM

Proud Louie rewards patience

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Long-range planning paid off for trainer Jonathan Nance last Saturday, when Proud Louie won the six-furlong Inaugural Handicap with a stirring display of speed and determination.

Nance claimed Proud Louie, a 6-year-old son of Proud Irish, on April 26 at Bay Meadows, taking him from a win against $5,000 claimers for himself, brother-in-law Mike Stafford, and their friend and fellow Prineville, Ore., native Steve Smith. From then until Saturday, Nance was basically biding his time.

"We really claimed him to run here at Portland Meadows, because he's an exceptional mudder," Nance said. "We didn't want to use him up over the summer, and we certainly didn't want to lose him, so we only ran him four times at Emerald and we probably ran him over his head.

"He picked up a couple of seconds and paid his way, but the important thing about those races was that they taught us how he wants to be ridden. He really needs to be pushed away from the gate. If he isn't in the race from the beginning, he can lose interest."

Rider Jose Rivera Jr. got that message from Nance on Saturday and took it to heart, hustling Proud Louie to a short lead between the favored Bold Chant and Aint No Connection through a testing first quarter in 21.78, the fastest initial fraction recorded over this track in recent memory.

Bold Chant dropped out on the turn, but Proud Louie and Aint No Connection continued dueling through a half-mile in 45.03, then Proud Louie drew off through the stretch to score by nearly two lengths over the fast-finishing second choice Bob Stories. The final time was 1:12.20.

"He really ran with a lot of heart," Rivera said. "I never even used my whip because I could tell he was running as hard as he could. You've got to like a horse who tries as hard as he does."

Nance eyes top trainer spot

Nance, who is in his 11th year of training at age 29, finished second to Jim Fergason in last season's trainer standings and hopes to move up a notch this year. He got off to a flying start on opening day, saddling three winners to Fergason's two, but Fergason came back to even the score at three apiece with a win on Sunday.

"Jim is tough to beat, but it gives me something to shoot for," Nance said. "I've got 26 horses here this year and they are pretty well distributed over all the categories, so I'll make a run at it and hope for the best."

Fergason, who said he has 30 horses on the grounds, teamed with rider Clark Jones for most of his 26 wins at last year's meet, but Jones is riding at Turf Paradise this winter. Newcomer Ron Keckler rode all three of Fergason's winners last weekend.

"Clark rode with Ron last summer at Boise, and he is the one who hooked us up," Fergason said. "Clark called me and said Ron is a hard worker and a good rider, and I think he was right."

Keckler, a 36-year-old native of Pocatello, Idaho, finished second to Jones in the rider standings at Boise last summer and won the riding title there in 2001. The 20-year veteran is riding here for the first time.

"I have broken horses in the winter in the past, but I thought I'd try something different this year," he said. "I got here a week and a half ago and everybody has been great to me, so I hope I can have some success here. My plan is to ride here for the whole meeting."

* Though the jockey colony has picked up Keckler, Brett Pierce, Danny Sandoval, and Flip Nollar, none of whom rode here last season, it lost one of its stalwarts for an indefinite period when Bob Webb suffered a broken collarbone in a training accident on Sunday morning. Webb, who has been among the leaders here for the last decade, has had little luck of late. He missed part of last season with a broken foot, then sat out the Grants Pass meet this summer after suffering a broken arm on opening day.

* Business was brisk here over opening weekend, as the live races attracted $115,984 in wagering on opening day and $113,790 on Sunday. The live races handled $121,919 on opening day last season, but that was also Breeders' Cup Day. Last season's first Sunday card handled only $58,733, so this year's opening weekend handle was up 27 percent.