04/22/2005 12:00AM

Old fellow in no rush to quit

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The original California Gold Rush commenced in January of 1848 upon the discovery of a piece of the precious flake at John Sutter's mill, in the south fork of the American River near the town of Coloma. This momentous event led to the rapid migration of more than half a million fortune-seekers, followed by statehood for California, the invention of motion pictures and the automobile, and the outright theft of both the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers by San Francisco and Los Angeles.

On Sunday, local racing's considerably more modest version of the Gold Rush takes place for the sixth time, presented by Hollywood Park and the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, and now sponsored by California National Bank.

Though ranging only from 6 1/2 to nine furlongs, the eight dirt races and two turf races are designed to bring out the best of the California breeding industry. The current best, that is, since the list of the very best is reserved for names like Swaps, Tiznow, Best Pal, Ancient Title, Honeymoon, Decidedly, Hill Rise, and Crystal Water, and there is nothing resembling that lot among the current crop.

Still, there are a few stars in the mix. Apple Blossom winner Dream of Summer and La Brea Stakes winner Alphabet Kisses help make the $150,000 B. Thoughtful Stakes an estimable seven-furlong test. Cee's Irish and Thor's Echo, fresh from their sweep of the WinStar Oaks and Derby at Sunland Park for the Doug O'Neill barn, both have dates on the Gold Rush card, as does Valentine Dancer, winner of Sunshine Millions events in 2004 and 2005. She will be favored to win - what else? - the $150,000 Fran's Valentine Stakes.

All that is fine, and worth a trip to the park. But there is no use holding a program restricted to California horses these days unless there is a place at the table for Continental Red - and there is, in the $150,000 Khaled Stakes, sponsored by TVG, at 1 1/8 miles on the grass.

Now age 9 and making the 69th start of his career, Continental Red has become the Georgie Jessel, the Tony Hulman, even the Helen Thomas of the restricted Cal-bred festivals. It is Continental Red who raises the toast, Continental Red who booms "Start your engines," and Continental Red who says "Thank you Mr. President" to let us know we can all go home.

Fortunately for owners Wes and Sharon Fitzpatrick, Continental Red has been more than a mere ceremonial presence at these things. He missed winning the 2002 Cal Cup Classic by a head and finished a sharp second in the 2003 Cal Cup Mile. His fourth-place effort in the 2005 Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita was admirable, when he lost to Star Over the Bay by 1 1/2 lengths. Then there were his two near-misses in Gold Rush events - the Quicken Tree Stakes in 2001 and the Khaled last year.

With 7 wins and 28 seconds and thirds, Continental Red has scraped together more than $1.2 million. Still, time takes its toll. It is unreasonable to expect the 9-year-old version of Continental Red to be on par with his career-best form, which found him in photo finishes alongside the likes of Rhythm Mad, Irish Warrior, Puerto Banus, and Irish Prize.

Continental Red's world was further complicated this winter when Ian Jory, his lifelong trainer, split town for a job in Saudi Arabia. The Fitzpatricks shifted their old boy to young Adam Kitchingman, but that went sour when a Kitchingman runner came up with a high bicarbonate test. Faster than you can say "zero tolerance," Continental Red was returned to his old stall in the former Jory stable, now run by longtime Jory assistant Tony Gonzalez.

Hopes were high this winter after Continental Red's good race with Star Over the Bay, his finale in Jory's care. His first and only start for Kitchingman came in the San Luis Obispo Handicap, which was taken off the grass during a rainy siege in February.

"Gary Stevens had ridden him before on a wet track and told us he just couldn't handle it," Fitzpatrick noted. "He tried to tell us not to run in the San Luis Obispo, but we did anyway."

The result?

"Gary was right," Fitzpatrick said. "That's why he's in the Hall of Fame."

Fitzpatrick feels Continental Red was both undertrained (because of the rain) and overmatched (because of Stanley Park and Meteor Storm) in the subsequent San Luis Rey, a race Red won in 2002. Certainly, at that point a case could have been made for retirement. As a former president of the CTBA, Fitzpatrick is keenly aware that his actions with a horse of Continental Red's caliber speak louder than any amount of words.

"Performance will answer the question of retirement, or soundness. Then there would be no question at all," Fitzpatrick said.

"This horse has been so good to us that I certainly wouldn't want to embarrass him," the owner added. "And unlike some horses you hear about, every time he comes to the farm he enjoys himself, and settles in quite well. As far as I'm concerned, he can come home any time he damn well pleases. But right now, he still looks and acts like a racehorse."