04/19/2002 12:00AM

Keemoon can do what most females can't

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PHOENIX - At the end of the 12-furlong San Luis Rey, Keemoon was yearning for just a few more strides as her rally fell a nose short of catching Continental Red.

Well, she gets her wish Sunday in Santa Anita's 1 3/4-mile San Juan Capistrano. On the final day of the Santa Anita meet, it would be no surprise if it's a mare who gets the last laugh.

Keemoon, trained by Neil Drysdale, will attempt to become only the third female to win the San Juan Capistrano; the others were La Zanzara in 1975 and Miss Grillo in 1949.

"It's going to be tough; that's a tough bunch in there," said assistant trainer John O'Donohue on Wednesday. "But she loves to go a distance. The farther she goes, the better she likes it."

Keemoon also raced against males in the San Luis Rey Handicap. But why run against males again when she could have raced against her own sex in Saturday's $250,000 Santa Barbara Handicap at 1 1/4 miles?

"One reason is that the filly race is a Grade 2; that had some bearing on the decision," O'Donohue said. The Capistrano has a $400,000 purse and Grade 1 status.

Keemoon has won 8 of 26 starts for $540,410. She is winless in four starts against males since coming to North America in the summer of 1999, but did chalk up one win against the boys in her native France, taking the Prix Vieux Manoir Handicap at 1 5/16 miles under 127 pounds on a "yielding" Saint-Cloud racecourse in May 1999.

Keemoon has already shown she can take Continental Red to the limit. There is no one like Bienamado in the field, and Denon, Lord Flasheart, and Straight Flush failed to develop as planned, so this is the perfect year for Keemoon to take a shot.

Viable alternative to San Simeon favorites

While the San Juan Capistrano is the long of it, the San Simeon at about 6 1/2 furlongs is the short of it.

The race, Sunday's supporting feature, brings two returnees. Swept Overboard is back from a few months off, and Malabar Gold returns to the hillside turf course he adores.

Swept Overboard may be the best all-around sprinter in the world. He's capable of beating any dirt sprinter around or any turf sprinter; Kona Gold, Xtra Heat, Caller One, and Squirtle Squirt cannot match that. After winning the Hollywood Turf Express to cap off a big 2001, Swept Overboard was given some time off by trainer Craig Dollase. He has been working smartly for his return and has routinely fired big off the bench.

But there are issues. First, he has never been down the hill. That's no small matter, as its idiosyncrasies lead some horses to act perplexed.

Malabar Gold, on the other hand, adores the hillside course. In the past two years, only El Cielo can be said to have been more effective over it.

Thinking they might have a Breeders' Cup Mile horse, Malabar Gold's connections gave the Kilroe Mile a try last month. After the pressing the issue early, Malabar Gold faltered in the lane. That's something he has never done sprinting down the hill, so he figures to enjoy his return to that venue.

Or could it be that he was simply exposed as being a smidge below the best? The Kilroe Mile certainly had the best field he has ever faced.

Still, Swept Overboard and Malabar Gold are the two favorites in the race. But you're not going to get rich on either, so it may pay to look around a bit.

One horse of interest is Nuclear Debate. To say he had a troubled trip in his last race would be a major understatement. He was lucky to finish that Feb. 27 race down the hill in one piece. He had serious trouble at least three times, steadying going down the hill, and then taking up at the eighth pole. Jockey David Flores almost went down twice and was fortunate to stay aboard Nuclear Debate, who finished seventh by six lengths in a field of nine.

Trainer Darrell Vienna figures that Nuclear Debate's luck can only improve in the San Simeon. Gary Stevens, who rode Nuclear Debate to a ninth-place finish in the Hong Kong Sprint last Dec. 16, regains the mount.

"David didn't do anything wrong; it was just a really troubled trip," Vienna said.

Nuclear Debate will need clear sailing to handle the top pair, but at 8-1 or so you can be excused for taking a shot against the big two, or at least using Nuclear Debate in the exotics with them.