03/14/2002 12:00AM

Which contender had the best alibi?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - One horse had a bad trip last time. Another was racing on unfamiliar ground. Denon and Straight Flush return to preferred conditions Saturday at Santa Anita, where both are qualified to win the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on turf.

Nine older horses entered the $250,000 race, including consistent California-bred Continental Red; New York shipper Coyote Lakes; the mare Keemoon; lukewarm contenders Ringaskiddy and El Gran Papa; and longshots Speedy Pick and Our Main Main.

Bettors will prefer Bobby Frankel's Hollywood Derby winner Denon over Richard Mandella's South American import Straight Flush, who returns to grass following a noncompetitive effort on dirt. Denon was also noncompetitive last out, a victim of circumstance finishing fifth in the San Luis Obispo Handicap.

Hammered to 3-5, Denon and Chris McCarron found themselves buried on the fence, with nowhere to go when the pacesetter wilted on the far turn. Said Frankel: "It was a bad deal, he got into a spot he couldn't get out." Blocked for more than a furlong, Denon did not get out of trouble until midstretch, by which time the race was over. Nevertheless, as Frankel noted: "He galloped out past everybody."

A three-time winner of $392,637 from eight starts, Denon and McCarron will try again Saturday as the 118-pound highweight. Handicappers who believe Denon's alibi was valid will give the 4-year-old another chance, though as Frankel noted: "People are fickle, they don't believe their own eyes."

The issue for Denon is his ability to stay 1 1/2 miles. Both starts beyond nine furlongs resulted in off-the-board finishes. Conversely, Straight Flush was a true stayer in Brazil. He won three straight at 1 1/2 miles, including two Group 1's. His style typically results in a trouble-free trip.

"In Brazil, he won those mile and a halfs on the lead or laying second," Mandella said. "He laid right there, and just galloped along." Based on the one-paced style, Mandella and jockey Gary Stevens were surprised at the turn of foot Straight Flush unleashed in his U.S. debut at a mile Dec. 30. He went from sixth to first in a blink, opened up, but got worn down and finished second. Mandella gave Straight Flush a chance on dirt in the Grade 2 San Antonio, but he failed to accelerate and and finished sixth.

Mandella said he may give Straight Flush another chance on dirt, but for the San Luis Rey, the 6-for-10 veteran is running at his preferred game. Corey Nakatani rides.

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