11/25/2008 12:00AM

Ailing Matlow battles to keep doing his job


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There are some mornings that are better than others, days when trainer Richard Matlow's hands do not work as he wishes and basic chores around the stable become difficult.

He has known for more than a year that he is ill. It was only earlier this year that he learned he was afflicted with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis - Lou Gehrig's disease. Matlow's hands have lost their muscle tone in recent months, his speech has slurred, his walk is labored. The neurodegenerative disease strikes slowly.

"I'm hanging in there," he said. "I'm still driving, but I don't know for how much longer."

Every morning, Matlow is at his stable at Hollywood Park, overseeing 13 horses. Last Sunday, Matlow, 66, won his first graded stakes when Jack o' Lantern pulled a 19-1 upset in the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue Stakes for 2-year-olds. While the victory was later tempered by the discovery that Jack o' Lantern had suffered a leg injury that will leave him sidelined indefinitely, the result left the people around Matlow amazed.

A horseman stricken by a terminal disease refuses to give up the lifestyle he knows best.

"What I see in him, he's like the strongest person I've ever met in my life," said jockey Isaias Enriquez. "He's there at 4:30 in the morning. I can see some days he's a little bit tired. He has to be very strong to [come to the barn]. You get up and you know you're having problems. He loves the sport and he loves what he's doing."

Never a high-profile trainer, Matlow has kept a small barn for decades. Until 2005, he was part of the team that inspected yearlings for the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association's annual sale, an arrangement that ended when the Del Mar sale merged with the Barretts sales.

It was that eye for a horse that led Matlow to Keeneland each September to buy yearlings, inspecting horses alongside fellow California trainer Bruce Headley.

"We always bought later in the sale," Headley said. "We had to wait for the conformation horses. We couldn't compete with the big boys. He has a love for a horse and a great eye for a horse."

When they agreed on a prospect, Headley knew it was time to buy.

"We'd say, 'This is it,' " Headley recalled. "It would turn out to be a good horse."

While Matlow's barn has had limited starters, it has had a high winning percentage and, with that, the respect of racing fans. Last year, Matlow had 11 wins from 64 starters, his highest win total since 2000, when he had 13 wins.

Jack o' Lantern was Matlow's first stakes winner since Heptathlon won the minor Safely Kept Handicap at Hollywood Park in December 1998, and was his biggest win since Half Mamoon won the California Cup Mile at Santa Anita in 1996. In 2006, he sold King of the Roxy after the colt won a maiden race at Hollywood Park. King of the Roxy later won the Grade 2 Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park and the Gradeo2 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

It was in 2007 that Matlow began noticing symptoms of his disability. Repeated trips to the doctor did not pinpoint the problem until earlier this year.

"I was misdiagnosed for about a year," he said. "It affects your nerves and muscles and it affects your speech. My hands are not good. I have a bad foot, but I come to the barn every day."

Enriquez has grown closer to Matlow recently, and is at the barn every Friday and Saturday, the mornings when Matlow works his horses. The first workers head to the track at about 5:30 a.m., sometimes without Matlow, who stays behind at the barn.

"He trusts me," Enriquez said.

When Jack o' Lantern snuck through along the rail in the Prevue to take the lead, the moment was not lost on Enriquez. It was his biggest win of the year, too, but his alliance with Matlow made it more meaningful. When he reached the wire, Enriquez thrust his right arm in the air in celebration.

"This had special meaning in my heart," he said. "I just reached up and said, 'This one is for you, boss.' "