04/22/2005 12:00AM

Ol' Continental Red still going strong

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Wes Fitzpatrick has a lighthearted explanation for Continental Red's longevity. The gelding was foaled on a leap day, Feb. 29, 1996.

"He's only had two birthdays; he thinks he's a 3-year-old," said Fitzpatrick. He and his wife, Sharon, own and bred Continental Red, who will try to turn back time Sunday and become only the third horse in Hollywood Park history to win a stakes race at age 9.

is so old he raced 14 times before any of the six rivals he meets in the $150,000 Khaled Stakes were born. Running Free, Skywalker Red, At Dawn, and Cheiron will try to knock him off in the 1 1/8-mile grass race, the fourth race on a Gold Rush program that is mighty familiar for Continental Red. He is so old that he competed in the inaugural Gold Rush card in 2000, finishing fifth in a 1 1/2-mile turf stakes.

Age aside, Continental Red is working enthusiastically for trainer Antonio Gonzalez, former assistant to Continental Red's previous longtime trainer Ian Jory. Continental Red enters the Khaled with seven wins, including three stakes, from 68 starts, in-the-money finishes in 16 other stakes, and earnings of $1,238,358. He ranks as the 23rd highest California-bred money earner. If he wins Sunday, Continental Red would leap to 16th.

Three significant changes Sunday benefit Continental Red: a drop from graded stakes, a work pattern not interrupted by rain, and a switch to jockey Pat Valenzuela.

"Patrick has gotten most of this horse's wins," Fitzpatrick said. "It's been long time since Patrick has ridden him. We're tickled pink to have him back."

Continental Red has had 21 riders, including the late Chris Antley and four retirees: Laffit Pincay, Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, and Julie Krone. Valenzuela is the only jockey to win more than once on Continental Red - together they are 5 for 14.

Valenzuela was named to ride Continental Red in the 2004 Sunshine Millions Classic, but the jockey's unexcused absence left Continental Red without a rider. Much has changed since. Valenzuela has since regained his spot as the circuit's dominant jockey, and Fitzpatrick said he believes his aggressive style fits Continental Red.

"He likes a stalking ride," Fitzpatrick said. "He should be able to track Skywalker Red." Continental Red's winter training was compromised by wet weather, but the last time he ran against Cal-breds, on Jan. 29, he finished a closing fourth in the Sunshine Millions Turf. That race probably would be good enough to win Sunday.

"He's come up to the race fine," Fitzpatrick said.

"This horse has never had a joint injected," he said. "He's a freak, as far as soundness."