01/02/2003 1:00AM

Picture him a contender

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ARCADIA, Calif. - If names such as Running Stag, Supreme Sound, and River Keen mean anything at all - and they should, since among them they won the Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Suburban, and Hawthorne Gold Cup - then it should have been no surprise that Nose the Trade came from out of nowhere to finish a promising third last month in the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park.

They are all fugitives from English winter racing, a grassless subculture of sport that takes a backseat to jump racing and is normally populated by animals of average ability and modest pedigree. Only three of Great Britain's many race courses even bother to present racing on a winterized surface, and none of them are ever mentioned in the same breath as Newmarket, Goodwood, or Ascot.

Still, the occasional gem can be unearthed. With a record of 5 for 10 on all-weather surfaces, Nose the Trade caught agent Mark MacDonald's attention last winter as a potential purchase for American racing.

"Obviously, it's not an exact science trying to figure the all-weather form in England and transferring it here," said MacDonald, a former trainer and assistant to W.L. Proctor. "But he'd run so well on the dirt there the winter before that he was raised to a point in the handicap where he was only eligible for a couple of their all-weather races."

Nose the Trade (by Cyrano de Bergerac) was trained in England by Jamie Osborne, a former top steeplechase rider. Osborne got the worst kind of notoriety when he became entangled last year in the fallout from a BBC undercover television show that alleged cheating in racing. After a hearing in December before the Jockey Club of England, Osborne was fined about $6,300 for statements that placed the sport in a disreputable light.

By then, Nose the Trade was long gone. MacDonald bought him at the Newmarket November sale for a bid of 36,000 guineas (about $60,000), and the horse was off to California.

When he appeared in the Native Diver, Nose the Trade's best dirt form did not show, so his odds of 27-1 were just about right. With David Flores aboard, Nose the Trade was beaten a length by Piensa Sonando, despite having his momentum broken with a quick check in midstretch.

"What impressed David was that the horses in front of him weren't really quitting," said Mike Puhich, who trains Nose the Trade. "He didn't realize how much horse he had, and kind of ran right up on their heels."

On Saturday, Nose the Trade comes right back in the San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita and runs smack into Cigar Mile winner Congaree.

"Can you believe 11 entered?" Puhich said. "I guess we didn't scare anyone away. Or maybe we made everybody jump in there by thinking our horse could win."

Puhich is cautiously optimistic that his horse will run well. The San Pasqual is a notch tougher than the Native Diver, but there could be more pace, which can only help a steady closer like Nose the Trade. Among those rooting for him on Saturday will be Puhich's girlfriend, Erica Nordean, an accomplished equine artist who can be found aboard a pony alongside Nose the Trade every morning at Santa Anita.

"I call him the mechanical horse," Nordean said. "He's like one of those machines they create for movies, to make it look like the actor is riding a real horse. He walks slow. He blinks really slow. He's actually a better pony than the pony. And when he's hotwalking, if he stops, he just wants to lay down and sleep.

"We wondered what he thinks about," Nordean added, "and we decided its mostly about fishing, or Cabo."

In a world of literal-minded racing painters and patrons, Nordean is one of the few artists who dares to flirt with the abstract. Her horses are unmistakably horses, but they have a vibrant, nativist feel, more like upscale cave paintings. Her influences include the Thoroughbreds and ballerinas of Degas, as well as the Blue Horse series of Franz Marc, the early 20th-century German expressionist.

When Nordean looks at Nose the Trade, she can't help imagining him on canvas.

"I can just see Nosey back in an English winter, in silver, black, and white almost," she said. "In real life, he's just brown. But if I were to do a painting of him, it would be in a very cool blue. Ice-cold blue."

For the San Pasqual, Nose the Trade is changing colors to the familiar gold, green, and white silks of Gary Tanaka. The sale was just completed. It has yet to be determined, though, whether Puhich will continue as Nose the Trade's trainer. A good result on Saturday won't hurt.

"He's a great horse to be around," Puhich said. "He really never does anything wrong. I'm just hoping I can hang on to him, because I think he can be a major player around here if he keeps moving forward."