12/21/2001 1:00AM

Struggling Knapp isn't giving up

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Rider Karen Knapp waited six years to return to the saddle, which she did shortly after this meeting began on Oct. 2. But by the time last Saturday's Oregon-bred Day program rolled around, she was almost ready to quit.

Knapp had ridden in the Northwest from 1981 until 1995, winning nearly 600 races aboard Thoroughbreds and many more on Quarter Horses. She was the leading rider at Portland Meadows in 1986-87, when she won the Oregon Futurity with Sea the Doc and the Oregon Derby with Senoritas Boy. She scored another Futurity win with Finest Sea in 1993, but two years later she gave up her riding career to raise her new baby.

"I always intended to come back when my son started school, though, and he went into the first grade this fall," she said. "I was excited to be back riding, but things started off slow for me. I couldn't get good mounts, and I couldn't seem to light the board. I was getting pretty discouraged."

Knapp went into last week with only three wins from 49 starts at the meeting, and things went downhill from there. On Friday she was nearly knocked out when struck by a horse tossing his head, so she could not fulfill her engagement aboard Country Sign in the night's sixth race.

Naturally, Country Sign won with substitute rider Sean Evans aboard. Then on Saturday she decided to take off longshot Burning Sea in order to ride third choice Walla Walla Sweet in the Oregon Distaff Starter Handicap - only to see Burning Sea win while Walla Walla Sweep failed to complete the race.

Then Knapp's luck changed. She picked up the mount on longshot Tiffa after Shawna Barber elected to ride the well-regarded Alyssa Lou in the Oregon Hers Stakes at a mile, and Knapp promptly turned in the ride of the day. After racing far back while in traffic early, Knapp drove Tiffa through a narrow opening along the rail on the second turn en route to a seven-length win.

"I didn't have anywhere to go on the second turn, but I could see the two riders ahead of me were paying attention to each other and I don't think they knew I was there," Knapp said. "I was able to sneak through along the rail, and my filly just exploded to the wire.

"I really needed that win. Now I have a good Oregon-bred filly to ride in all the stakes, and it gives me something to look forward to. That win may have kept me from quitting."

Knapp now intends to ride out the meeting here, then ride either at Emerald Downs or at Yavapai Downs in Arizona, where her father, former Longacres trainer Neil Knapp, trains.

Knapp's twin sister, Shari, who started riding in races shortly after Karen did at Longacres, is now pursuing a career in insulating homes.

o Oregon Thoroughbred Breeders Association executive secretary Ursula Gibbons said that Saturday's annual stallion season auction netted a record $18,500 from the sale of 20 stallion seasons. The top price was paid by Eric Jensen: $7,500 for a breeding to 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup, who stands at Adena Springs Kentucky. The season was donated by Adena Springs owner Frank Stronach. Proceeds from the stallion season auction are used to supplement the purse for the OTBA Sales Stakes and to provide a bonus for winning both the Sales Stakes and the Oregon Futurity.

o Leona Leonard, the matriarch of one of Washington's most prominent racing families, died earlier this month at age 80. She was the wife of longtime trainer Jack Leonard, who died in 1988, and the mother of former rider Jack Leonard and Sally Steiner, who operates the Quarter Chute Cafe at Emerald Downs with her husband, Joe Steiner. A celebration of Leona Leonard's life will be held in the spring at Emerald Downs.

o Portland Meadows will cut back to a Saturday-Sunday racing schedule through the holiday season. Friday night racing will resume on Jan. 11.