06/06/2005 11:00PM

'Willie' tries to regain confidence

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AUBURN, Wash. - Willie the Cat drops to the $20,000 claiming level in search of a confidence-boosting win Thursday, versus six other older sprinters in the 6 1/2-furlong feature at Emerald Downs.

Willie the Cat, 6, a front-runner trained by Tim McCanna, took Emerald Downs by storm last April and May, winning three straight starts, including a world-record performance in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance race and stakes wins at six furlongs and 6 1/2 furlongs.

But it has been slim pickings for him since then, as Willie the Cat lost his last four starts in 2004 and is winless in two starts this year. He finished eighth behind Slewicide Cruise in the April 24 Seattle Handicap at six furlongs, then ran third to Salt Grinder in a $40,000 optional claiming race on May 21. In that race, Salt Grinder equaled the track record of 1:07.60 for six furlongs.

Willie the Cat gets some class relief Thursday, but it remains to be seen whether he will get any pace relief. The field also includes Just Outrageous, Deas Island, and California invader Mountain Mustang, all of whom possess a great deal of early speed.

A fast and contested pace would appear to benefit Marbury, who is returning to Emerald Downs after back-to-back sixth-place finishes at the $20,000 level at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in April and May. Marbury, a stretch-runner trained by Jim Penney, won a $25,000 optional claiming race here last year, coming from way back to win by a head over Call Columbo in 1:09.60 for six furlongs.