05/06/2003 11:00PM

Proud Louie won't have it easy

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AUBURN, Wash. - A field of 11 $10,000 sprinters will present handicappers with a stern challenge in Friday's six-furlong feature at Emerald Downs.

Proud Louie gained a legion of admirers last winter at Portland Meadows and figures to be among the favorites. Proud Louie, a 7-year-old with career earnings of over $255,000, never finished worse than third while winning five of nine starts in Portland, and he capped his campaign with a sharp win in the five-furlong Flashway Owners' Handicap on closing day, April 27.

Proud Louie, who was claimed by owner Jim Gentry for $6,250 in March, did not win in four starts at Emerald last season, but he appears to be racing in sharper form now. At the very least, Proud Louie's backers can be confident he will give them an all-out effort. A thorough professional, Proud Louie is known for pinning his ears when challenged and stretching his neck out at the wire, traits that have endeared him to fans and horsemen alike.

Those who like Proud Louie will have a hard time dismissing Special Sign, who outfinished Proud Louie twice at Portland Meadows. Special Sign, however, finished third in a $10,000 claiming race at 5 1/2 furlongs here April 25. The favorite and second-place finisher in that race, Zipledo, is back in Friday's feature.

Others who appear able to challenge Proud Louie include Be the Bunny, who won at the $20,000 level here last season and defeated Proud Louie in an allowance sprint at Portland Meadows in December, and Matlock, a former turf winner at Santa Anita who was claimed by trainer Roy Lumm for $8,000 in October at Bay Meadows.