03/18/2004 1:00AM

Out with old, in with unknown

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It was the race that would never end. An eternal mile and one-half. On and on they slogged, sinking deep into the Santa Anita turf, until all but one gave up the ghost and staggered home.

The survivor - okay, winner - of the 2003 San Luis Rey Handicap was Champion Lodge, who ended up winning by six lengths in 2:33.48, more than 10 seconds slower than the Santa Anita course record. (For those who think the 2:23 mark might be a fluke, it was set by Fiddle Isle in 1970 and equaled by John Henry 10 years later.)

Champion Lodge, now age 7, will not be around to defend his San Luis Rey title when the race is run again on Saturday. After finishing third in the subsequent San Juan Capistrano Handicap, he suffered an injury that was apparently too painful for owner Ron Charles to even talk about. Surgery was required.

"I'd rather not get into it," Charles said. "But he definitely hurt himself. It was about two or three weeks after the race that something showed. He's back in training now, and we hope to get him back to the races in six weeks or so."

Champion Lodge is not the only one among the missing. Many of California's major turf horses of 2003 have all but disappeared down rabbit holes of retirement and injury, leaving the division hungry for history and ripe for fresh blood.

It is some consolation that Continental Red will be back again, at the age of 8. He won the 2002 version of the San Luis Rey and has hit the board in seven of 12 graded stakes since then without winning. Give him points for persistence, if nothing else.

Special Matter, the one-time claimer, is also in the San Luis Rey field this time around after finishing an exhausted second to Champion Lodge last year. Stir in 2003 Sunset Handicap winner Puerto Banus and 2003 Burke Handicap winner Runaway Dancer, and at least there is some continuity.

This is what happened to the rest of California's turf class of 2003:

* Storming Home, winner of the Jim Murray, the Whittingham Memorial, and the Clement Hirsch Turf Memorial, was retired to stud in England after suffering an injury in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

* Johar, the dead-heat winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf and winner of the 2003 San Marcos Handicap, is in limbo as part of the sale and dispersal of The Thoroughbred Corp.'s racing assets. Johar is at Richard Mandella's barn, basically eating and sleeping.

* The Tin Man, Mandella's other ace, won the 2003 San Luis Obispo Handicap and finished a close fourth in the Breeders' Cup Turf, but he has been turned out since December and is still months away from a return. "He got tired at the end of the year," Mandella said. Don't we all. "He's about ready to go back into the water treadmill."

* Epicentre, winner of the 2003 Hollywood Turf Cup on the disqualification of Bobby Frankel stablemate Continuously, finished fifth last weekend in the Golden Gate Handicap. As for Continuously, he is passing the San Luis Rey after finishing a close second to Puerto Banus in last month's renewal of the San Luis Obispo.

* Irish Warrior, winner of the 11-furlong Del Mar Handicap in 2003, went slumming with the milers and finished 10th of 14 in the Kilroe Mile in early March.

* Passinetti, winner of the 2003 San Juan Capistrano for owner Gary Tanaka, aggravated his chronically tender left front suspensory not long after his Capistrano win and missed the remainder of the season. Ben Cecil had Passinetti back in training late last year, but twang went the ligament again and the old boy is back on the farm.

In the meantime, Cecil hopes that new shooter Researched, also owned by Tanaka, can fill the breach with a good effort Saturday in the San Luis Rey. A 5-year-old son of champion sire Danehill, Researched stepped off the plane last October to finish a solid third in the 1 1/2-mile Burke. In his first start of 2004, Researched was eighth in the San Luis Obispo, beaten less than three lengths after dueling on the pace.

"I loved him going into that race," Cecil said. "But I don't think he wanted to be at the front like that. When he does that he messes around. Even so, after they'd gone a couple of slow furlongs, I conned myself into thinking it might be okay. It wasn't.

"And even though he hadn't run since November, I don't think it was a question of him getting tired as much as getting bored, being out in front," Cecil added. "In his works he can come home in 22 and change, which surprises me. This time I hope he can find cover, maybe in midpack or so, and come with his run."

As for the fragile Passinetti, he should get back to the track, one way or another.

"Mr. Tanaka wants to give him at least six months' rest, then maybe try him again," Cecil said. "If it doesn't work out, I'm hoping he might let me have him to use as a pony, because he is a very good-looking horse."