04/19/2002 12:00AM

Keemoon can score one for the gals


ARCADIA, Calif. - Keemoon will be bucking a boatload of history on Sunday when she tries to become only the second female to win America's longest major grass race, the San Juan Capistrano.

An inch or two will do.

In her last start, Keemoon was gaining on Continental Red at the end of the San Luis Rey Handicap when the wire came up a jump too soon. That race was at 1 1/2 miles.

The San Juan, at almost 1 3/4 miles, uses up the full length of the hillside turf course, with its unique right-hand turn a furlong from the start and its touchy dirt strip crossing onto the main course.

Horses have been known to take flight at the sudden change in color from green to brown.

Keemoon, to her credit, lets nothing ruffle her feathers. On Friday morning, she could be found dozing on her feet in her stall at Neil Drysdale's Hollywood Park barn, too mellow to be troubled by the strange sight of a racing writer loitering at her webbing. Her blaze presents a zigzag of white on a warm, dark bay countenance, and she sports a set of ears that could double as satellite dishes.

"The old-timers in Ireland liked to say that long ears mean honesty, a real genuine sort," said John O'Donoghue, who is minding the California store while Drysdale is on the road.

"Nothing bothers her. She's very laid back. Very easy to train. She just kind of blends in and tries hard."

Since her disinterested American debut in the 1999 Del Mar Oaks, Keemoon has been a reliable player in the Drysdale line-up. She has won six times in this country (twice in her native France), including victories in the Bewitch Stakes at Keeneland and four overnight handicaps in California.

The San Luis Rey, in which she was beaten a nose, was by far Keemoon's best American effort. It came in her first race in more than six months, dating back to the E.P. Taylor Stakes over a wet course at Woodbine.

They used to write ballads and erect statues to trainers who were daring enough to bring horses back to the races at distances of 1 1/2 miles in stakes company. Then we figured out it wasn't such a big deal. It happens all the time. Just not in the good old speed-crazy U.S.A.

"They've got maiden races at a mile and a half in England," O'Donoghue pointed out. "Horses are bred for it and trained for it. And whether or not they're bred for it, Neil trains all his horses for stamina."

O'Donoghue was raised in the western Ireland town of Limerick, where his home backed up to the local racecourse. Rather than pursuing his father's profession at the flour mill, however, O'Donoghue leaned toward his mother's side of the family, which was full of horse trainers. Later on, his mentors included Vincent O'Brien and John Gosden.

"It's too bad we don't have more of these long races in California," O'Donoghue said. "It comes natural to most horses. But instead, they all ended up being trained for speed."

Even though the first five furlongs is run gradually downhill, the San Juan requires a lot from a racehorse. Two and a half minutes is a long time to gallop at a solid pace, and that only gets a San Juan runner to the top of stretch. Then the real racing begins, when true stamina is thoroughly tested.

At that point, the sex of the animal is rarely an issue.

"I don't think it matters that much if you've got a filly or a colt," O'Donoghue said. "Either they can get the distance, or they can't. There's nothing you can do about it."

Keemoon has beaten males in the past. Okay, the distant past - three years ago in a 1 5/16-mile handicap over a yielding, left-handed grass course at Saint-Cloud, in suburban Paris. In four subsequent intermural encounters she was sixth, fourth, sixth, and second.

Still, it is not unusual for mares to run well in the San Juan. Since 1980, when The Very One finished third to John Henry, females have been right there several times. Estrapade was second to Prince True, Mountain Bear was second to Dahar, Miss Alleged was second to Fly till Dawn, and Windsharp was second to Raintrap. Carotene, the champion Canadian mare, was third to Great Communicator.

Keemoon has yet to be mentioned in the same breath with those fine mares, but she might not need to be quite that good. Continental Red and Cagney - her primary challengers on Sunday - are capable runners. But neither strikes fear into the opposition.

If she wins, Keemoon will join La Zanzara as the only mares to take the San Juan, at least as it has been run under its current conditions. Back in 1949, when there was no Santa Anita turf course, the South American mare Miss Grillo beat the boys going 14 furlongs on the dirt. She was trained by Horatio Luro and his assistant Charlie Whittingham. La Zanzara was trained by Charlie Whittingham and his assistant Neil Drysdale.

If nothing else, O'Donoghue likes the pattern.