03/14/2002 12:00AM

Don't forget about the big red ones

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ARCADIA, Calif. - As the field parades to the post for the San Luis Rey Handicap here on Saturday afternoon, it would be great if Trevor Denman would call for a moment of silence in tribute to the big red horse who owned a large piece of the Santa Anita grass course in 1993 and 1994.

Bien Bien's heart betrayed him the first time in his life last week in England, where he was busy trying to sire another Bienamado. The attack was fatal, but he died with his boots on, shortly after completing his duties.

Bien Bien and 1 1/2-mile San Luis Rey were inseparable. In 1993, it took the best efforts of eventual Horse of the Year Kotashaan to catch the red horse in the final furlong and beat him to the wire. The following year, with no Kotashaan around, Bien Bien won the San Luis Rey by 5 1/2 lengths, under a pull.

If there is horse of Bien Bien quality in the field for the 2002 San Luis Rey, so far the secret has been well kept. Straight Flush, the Brazilian star, has an enviable record and finally gets his preferred distance. Denon must run back to his Hollywood Derby to be taken seriously. Coyote Lakes, beaten in this race last year, returns from New York to try again, while Keemoon can be dangerous on her very best day.

Then there is the big red horse. He's no Bien Bien, but don't tell Continental Red, the 6-year-old gelded son of Flying Continental who will try to snap a recent run of near-misses in top company at the meet.

Continental Red was beaten a nose by the accomplished Irish Prize in the San Marcos Handicap in January, then came back on Feb. 16 to lose the San Luis Obispo Handicap to Nazirali by only a neck. Those results fit well with his 2001 record of a third (by a neck) in the Quicken Tree Stakes, a second (by a half) in the Escondido Handicap, and three other placings in which he was close, but no cigar. Is there a pattern? Is he a tease? Ian Jory, who trains Continental Red, says just the opposite is true.

"He's a real trier," Jory said from his Hollywood Park stable this week. "He runs his eyeballs out every time. And there were a couple of races where he was just plain unlucky."

He has also been a pleasant surprise. Bred and owned by Sharon and Wes Fitzpatrick, Continental Red was cut out to be a useful sort of weekday horse, perhaps stepping up into an occasional stakes for products of California. He arrived at the end of his 5-year-old season last year with 36 starts, four wins, and no fewer than 15 seconds and thirds. Translation: Continental Red was a horse you could count on.

"We turned him out at the end of his racing last year for a month of freshening at the Fitzpatricks' farm in Norco," Jory said. "Since he's been back, he's been a different horse. I don't know what they do out there in Norco, but it worked for him."

Okay, so the Riverside County town of Norco is not exactly a verdant cradle of the Thoroughbred world, although sod farms are prevalent. Sometimes the only thing a horse - or a human - needs to be invigorated is a little time away from the office. And it doesn't matter where.

"He's a very sound horse, and very correct," Jory said. "That helps a lot. It's rare, but it's a treat to have that horse you never really worry about. Sometimes he'll have a little stiffness in his back, but I think that's typical of long-backed horse like him.

"The only thing we really need to watch is the way he's handled coming out of his races," Jory went on. "Because he puts so much into each race, you don't want to go back to work with him too soon. But when he's ready, he goes right on without missing a beat."

It is probably a coincidence that the renaissance of Continental Red coincided with Patrick Valenzuela's addition to his equipment. Valenzuela rode him in both recent races. Jory explained that Chris McCarron had the mount until he chose another horse, but the trainer was not too dismayed. After all, it was the Valenzuela-Jory team that once made history with a Cal-bred named Best Pal.

"That's right," Jory said, recalling Best Pal's brilliant 2-year-old campaign of 1990. "I wouldn't mind getting together with Patrick every 10 years or so for a horse like that. Technically, though, Continental Red was his mount from the beginning."

Valenzuela actually broke Continental Red's maiden on Nov. 11, 1999, capping a three-winner day for the Jory barn. Pat rode Red right back for an allowance win and then . . . poof . . . he was gone, suspended in February of 2000 after testing positive for an amphetamine. When Valenzuela returned in December, Continental Red was still hanging around.

"Now, we'll find out Saturday just how much he has improved," Jory said.