04/23/2003 11:00PM

Just call it Veterans' Day


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The $1.3 million California Gold Rush at Hollywood Park - a six-stakes, 10-race card for California-breds - is still in its infancy. The horses? That's a different story. Many of the top horses racing Saturday in the fourth annual Gold Rush are practically ancient.

Former handicap star General Challenge, now 7, returns from a two-year, eight-month layoff in the $150,000 Tiznow Stakes. He will face Grey Memo, a virtual toddler at age 6, who is back home just one month after a second-place finish in the Godolphin Mile in Dubai. Finally, there is the old man. Native Desert, a 10-year-old millionaire, will try to win the $150,000 TVG Khaled Stakes for the third time and become the oldest stakes winner in track history.

In all, some 106 California-breds entered the Gold Rush extravaganza and, as usual, the richest race on the card is not the best. Excessivepleasure will start as a short-price favorite in the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes, and his perceived domination in the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds is one reason Martin Panza, Hollywood's racing secretary, positioned the Snow Chief as race 4, one race before the first leg of a pick six that has a guaranteed $1 million pool.

"From a gambling perspective, it was the better move," Panza said. "I could have put the Snow Chief in the pick six, but Excessivepleasure will be even-money or 6-5. With the Tiznow (race 8) and Melair (race 9) at the back, it makes the pick six more interesting."

What Panza did not say is that business would be good Sunday if the pick six rolled over, and based on the deep, competitive nature of the pick six races (5-10), a carryover is not unexpected. Of course, business is always good on Gold Rush Day, which in its first three years generated average ontrack attendance of more than 16,000 and an average total handle of more than $16.5 million. The wagering figure gets an assist from the pick six, and with a seven-figure pool guaranteed, Panza went out of his way to position the most lopsided stakes outside the series.

Cee's Elegance should defeat Jetinto Houston in race 1, the $150,000 B. Thoughtful for fillies and mares at seven furlongs. Lightly raced Blind Ambition has a decided advantage over Shalini in race 3, the $150,000 Fran's Valentine for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on grass. Excessivepleasure, however, may not be the lock that most will consider him in race 4. Challenged by the nine-furlong distance, he faces upstart Chief Planner and two-turn specialist Winning Stripes in the $250,000 Snow Chief. From there, things get tougher.

Native Desert is the sentimental favorite in race 6, the $150,000 TVG Khaled at a 1 1/8 miles on turf, though he has raced just once since July. Race 9 is impossible - the $200,000 Melair Stakes for 3-year-old fillies drew a wide-open field of 12. Two maiden races and two allowances are sprinkled through the card, on which the best race is the inaugural running of the Tiznow (race 8) at 7 1/2 furlongs.

Nine older horses entered the Tiznow, and General Challenge poses an enigma only for bettors with hearts of mush. The 7-year-old gelding has not raced since August 2000 and faces a solid group of racing-fit veterans.

"He's working well, but he'll probably be a little rusty," General Challenge's trainer, Bob Baffert, said. "It's a good spot to get started, and we figured we might as well start him out in a stake."

General Challenge is the most accomplished horse in the field, having won 9 of 18 and more than $2.8 million. He will race coupled with Commander's Flag, a lightly raced 4-year-old who was bottled behind horses in his most recent start and finished seventh. It ended a three-race win steak, but trainer Bruce Headley is confident he will return to form with a clean trip. On Saturday, Commander's Flag is the stronger half of the Golden Eagle Farm entry.

Grey Memo has won eight races and $1.7 million, but is only one month removed from Dubai. The gray is 4 for 13 at Hollywood, though the international ship and lack of pace in the Tiznow suggest he is up against it. The horses to beat are Bonus Pay Day and Joey Franco.

Joey Franco's form had tailed off this winter until he transferred from trainer David Hofmans to Darrell Vienna. The colt's new trainer takes no credit for Joey Franco's improved effort in the Grade 2 Potrero Grande. He finished second at 24-1.

"There was no thorn to pull, no big adjustment," Vienna said. "We just tried to get him to relax. We tried a different tactic and got lucky." Joey Franco's tactical speed should lead to a good trip pushing modest splits. Meanwhile, the horse who figures for the best trip of all is Bonus Pay Day.

A 5-year-old who has earned more than $200,000 since trainer Pete Eurton claimed him for $32,000, Bonus Pay Day is drawn comfortably on the outside, his speed figures are appropriate, and he enters as a fit and ready presser against a lot of question marks. "He's probably a couple notches below open company, but if he runs his race, he fits," Eurton said.

Bonus Pay Day, owned by Frank and Sharon Alesia, Bram Jam Stable, and Joe Ciaglia, has won 9 of 36 overall and should get a pace-pressing trip under Pat Valenzuela. Other starters include Swordfish, Waingarth, Vito Corleone, Sombrio, and Ride and Shine.