02/13/2004 1:00AM

Right horse, right surface, right here


PHOENIX - Handicappers tend to do certain things well, and certain things not so well. My own not-so-good often comes with looking at a turf horse and seeing the grass greener on the dirt.

Over the years I've latched on to such horses as Sandpit, Bien Bien, and Marlin, among other good turf horses, as they moved to dirt. The three I mention ran well, and obviously history will show that many a fine turf runner brought his top game to the dirt. But often at the upper levels, it's simply too big a hurdle. Sandpit, Bien Bien, and Marlin all ran well on dirt, but they didn't win. The faster splits of a dirt race put too much pressure on a turf horse. If a horse wants to be on or near the pace, he normally has to go faster early on dirt than he does on turf. If he lags back he may find himself with too much to do since the pacesetters went faster on dirt than on turf and put a lot of ground between themselves and any laggard.

When the 1 1/8-mile Sunshine Millions Classic on dirt came up a few weeks ago I went to the turf horse, Continental Red. Oh, he had handled dirt before, but he's a turf horse. He was coming off a terrific effort behind top-notch turf runner Redattore in the Grade 2 San Gabriel Handicap on the Santa Anita turf in late December. I knew I was facing some tough dirt runners, such as Peace Rules and the eventual winner, Southern Image - but at 11-1 off that big try to Redattore I liked my prospects.

So for the umpteenth time I watched a turf horse fall much too far back off fast dirt splits, then have too much to do. Continental Red rallied to finish sixth, but he was not a genuine factor after being too far back early.

I think I've finally got a handle on this handicapping misstep of mine, but it doesn't really apply here. That's because in Monday's Grade 2 San Luis Obispo at 1 1/2 miles on the turf, it is a turf horse that I like. In fact, it's Continental Red once again.

Trained by Ian Jory, Continental Red has been a warrior for a long time. He came to hand in 2002, winning races such as the Grade 2 San Luis Rey, and he had a number of graded stakes placings to his credit as well. Things didn't go as well for him in 2003, though he did win the ungraded Quicken Tree at 1 1/2 miles on the turf at Hollywood. But the 8-year-old Continental Red showed signs that he still had some of his 2002 ability left in him. He finished second, narrowly losing the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap last summer, then was a solid second to the red-hot Lennyfromalibu in the Cal Cup Mile at Santa Anita in November. And anyone who knows Continental Red knows a mile is far too short for him. He's just getting warmed up.

But then came a turn-the-corner run. He wasn't going to beat Redattore in the San Gabriel - no one was. Redattore was coming off a smashing win in the Grade 2 Citation at Hollywood and looked even more brilliant here. But while everyone was watching Redattore gallop out majestically, suddenly Continental Red burst onto the left side of the television screen. He was finishing enthusiastically, looking very much like the old Continental Red. Could anybody else have gotten within earshot of Redattore on that day?

The effort signaled to me that Continental Red was back and feeling good, and the 1 1/8 miles of the San Gabriel may well still be short of what he wants. Well, in Monday's San Luis Obispo he gets back to 1 1/2 miles. The Sunshine Millions turned out to be the wrong spot at the wrong time on the wrong surface. That isn't the case this time, and considering there is no one around like Johar or Storming Home to make you wring your hands, Continental Red could be spotted to score the surprise I was hoping for back in late January. I think I've finally learned my lesson: let the turfers turf, let the dirt horses dirt.