01/31/2004 1:00AM

Red Rioja rates to Brown Bess win

Vassar Photo
Red Rioja wins the Grade 3, $100,000 Brown Bess Handicap at Golden Gate Fields on Saturday.

ALBANY, Calif. - Favored Red Rioja sat nicely behind a brisk pace, moved inside in the stretch, and finished strongly to win the Grade 3, $100,000 at Golden Gate Fields on Saturday.

A 5-year-old mare, Red Rioja outkicked Hooked on Niners as both horses wore down A B Noodle in the stretch. Red Rioja ($4) defeated Hooked on Niners by a length in the 1 1/16-mile turf race, winning in 1:46.01 over a soft course.

"She took a half-mile to get into the race and find her action," winning jockey Eric Saint-Martin said.

Red Rioja was seventh early as Just Bill Me set the pace ahead of stablemate Hippogator with A B Noodle third.

"I tried to stay out of trouble and have a clean ride," Saint-Martin said. "Into the stretch I went to an opening inside, and I waited until she was well-balanced to send her."

Once Saint-Martin asked, Red Rioja was too much for her rivals to handle.

Russell Baze didn't offer any excuses for Hooked on Niners.

"My mare ran nice. She couldn't hold off the winner. That horse had too much punch," said Baze.

Roberto Gonzalez was also pleased with A B Noodle's effort.

"She relaxed when I took her off the leaders," he said. "I had a lot of horse at the top of the lane, but they just blew by me at the end."

Red Rioja won her U.S. debut at Del Mar last Sept. 6 after being sidelined for nearly a year after suffering a broken pelvis in England. She was fifth in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon but had not run since finishing second in an allowance race at Santa Anita on Oct. 15.

Trainer Ben Cecil, who clicked off victories in $100,000 races here with regularity in the late 1990's, said that Red Rioja had not run since October because of a minor ankle problem.

The victory, worth $55,000, was her fourth in 15 career starts and lifted her career earnings to $224,738.