03/20/2004 1:00AM

Meteor Storm takes San Luis Rey


ARCADIA, Calif. - Meteor Storm needs 1 1/2 miles to do his best. He doesn't want, nor need, to be on the lead. In Saturday's $200,000 , he finally got both his ideal distance and his ideal trip, and he responded by rallying to take the Grade 2 stakes race by a neck over fast-finishing Labirinto.

Meteor Storm had finished fourth in a similar 1 1/2-mile grass race, the San Luis Obispo Handicap, five weeks earlier. That day, however, there was little pace, and Meteor Storm inherited the lead. He hung on doggedly to finish fourth in a blanket finish, beaten just a half-length by Puerto Banus.

Of the 10 runners in the San Luis Rey, six were exiting the San Luis Obispo. The public made Puerto Banus the 5-2 favorite. Meteor Storm ($17.60) was the fifth choice.

Continental Red, who won the San Luis Rey two years earlier, stumbled so badly at the start that he went to his knees and was eliminated. "He just did a belly flop," said his rider, Gary Stevens.

Pace was provided by Toccet, who was wheeled back just two weeks after competing in the Santa Anita Handicap. He set quarter-mile fractions of 23.31 seconds, :47.32, 1:12.09, 1:37.88, and 2:02.18 for the first 1 1/4 miles of the race. But as the field turned into the lane, the late runners moved in ominously.

Meteor Storm, under jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., had saved ground until the top of the lane, at which point he was tipped to the three path. He hit the top inside the furlong pole, then was fully extended to hold on in 2:26.03 for 1 1/2 miles on firm turf. Labirinto finished fastest of all to take second, three-quarters of a length in front of third-place Gene de Campeao. Puerto Banus was fifth, and Toccet faded to seventh.

"He's got a good turn of foot. He really accelerated for a horse going a mile and a half," said Wally Dollase, who trains Meteor Storm. "I told Jose there would probably be a lot more pace, and to not rush him."

Meteor Storm, a 5-year-old horse by Bigstone, has now won four times in 12 starts. He is 3-for-7 since being imported from France by Dollase, who purchased the horse for owners Mike Jarvis, Gary Margolis, and Ken Smole. Dollase said he was first attracted to Meteor Storm after he finished third in a listed stakes race in France in 2002 to Sulamani, who went on to be an international star.