07/08/2004 12:00AM

The many faces of Continental Red


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The plot has been as thick as a Tom Clancy thriller, complete with false leads and clever distractions. At one time or another, we have been asked to believe that Continental Red was a professional maiden, a marathon turf horse, or a Cal-bred dirt horse, cloaked all the while in the guise of a hard-luck second banana. And we believed it.

But now, the mole buried deep in the agency has emerged, and the truth is suddenly crystal clear. At the age of 8, on the brink of his 63rd career appearance, Continental Red has his sights set squarely on the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday, and anyone who thinks he won't be a factor has been reading the wrong intelligence reports.

"We've been found out," confessed Red's trainer, Ian Jory. "We've been pointing for this race from the beginning."

The beginning for Continental Red came so long ago that clothes worn then have returned to style. Wherever anyone was on Oct. 4, 1998, chances are they did not think to put a check mark next to the name of the willowy chestnut 2-year-old by Flying Continental who made his career debut for breeders Sharon and Wes Fitzpatrick at odds of 65-1 in the $100,000 California Sires Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Especially after he was beaten more than 18 lengths.

Through the ensuing seasons, Continental Red maintained his blue-collar cover. It took him 11 tries to win his maiden, 29 starts to hit the board in a stakes race, and 39 races before he managed to win an event of any consequence, when he took the San Luis Rey Stakes on the Santa Anita grass in March of 2002. Even then he attempted to divert attention, winning by the narrowest possible nose.

His record since that fateful day has been subject to broad interpretation. He has been in nothing but stakes races since, 23 straight without a competitive break, with a lone victory backed by seven solid seconds and four additional thirds. For lack of a little more than a length, Continental Red would have been fully exposed as the winner of the Sunset, the Del Mar Handicap, the San Luis Obispo, the Jim Murray Memorial, and the California Cup Classic.

So who is the real Continental Red? The evidence seems to indicate that he is a teasing heartbreaker who can dance with the best but can't close the deal. All those nickels and dimes have added up to earnings of nearly $1.2 million, but oh, to think of what might have been.

"We occasionally count up what we've left on the table in those close finishes," conceded Wes Fitzpatrick, a former president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, from his farm near the southern California town of Hemet. "But I view it this way. He's a little bit of an overachiever, in that he may not be as classy as his competition at times, so he's gotten where he is by having a whole lot of heart.

"Do I regret that we haven't won a few more of those photos? Of course," Fitzpatrick added. "But everybody around the racetrack respects Red. Bruce Headley paid him the ultimate compliment when he said, 'That old horse made my horse run his guts out.' "

Headley was referring to the $350,000 Murray Memorial last May 8, at 12 furlongs on the Hollywood grass, when Rhythm Mad had to run like the devil to catch Continental Red and win by a quarter of a length. It was a vintage Red performance, looking every bit the winner right up to the final yards.

Neither Fitzpatrick nor Jory harbors any delusions about the Gold Cup. Continental Red has never run in a major main-track event at 10 furlongs in his life. But the field for the 2004 Gold Cup lacks both the breadth and the depth of Gold Cups past - even though Olmodovar, Total Impact, Yessirgeneralsir, and Even the Score have won respected stakes events - which gives the Red team a reason to strike while their horse is in form.

Jory takes little credit for Continental Red's longevity.

"He likes to be left alone, so I keep away from him," Jory said. "And he does like to bite. I try to get in there and check his legs before he nails me. He does enjoy his masseuse, Gail Matthews, and she works on a bit of stiffness around the withers from time to time. But for the most part he has just been an amazingly sound horse. I've never had to inject a single joint."

Fitzpatrick says he is hoping that Continental Red's proven ability at 10 furlongs and beyond will set him apart from his Gold Cup competition.

"It's a real barrier," Fitzpatrick noted. "We've seen it so many times in the Kentucky Derby, for instance. When they get to the eighth pole there are not a lot of horses gaining ground. And we know he will be closing."

At the end of the day, Continental Red might be one of those animals who gets his kicks from the chase and lets the humans worry about results.

"We bought our farm in 1998, and Continental Red has paid for every improvement we've ever made on the place," Fitzpatrick added. "If everyone in the horse business had an opportunity to campaign a horse like this, it wouldn't be so hard attracting owners."