11/23/2001 1:00AM

'Apples' aims to join elite group


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Ben Cecil reacted as fast as a game show contestant when asked on Friday how 3-year-old fillies have done in recent runnings of the Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park.

He knew that 1998 winner Ryafan was the most recent 3-year-old filly to succeed, preceded by Flawlessly in 1991 and Castilla in 1982.

On Sunday, Cecil hopes that his Golden Apples can become the fourth 3-year-old filly to win the late-season Grade 1 when she is likely to start as a slight favorite in the $500,000 Matriarch, run over 1 1/8 miles on turf.

Since her arrival from Ireland in the summer, Golden Apples has been a star, winning the Del Mar Oaks and Las Palmas Handicap and finishing second in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Keeneland six weeks ago.

The lessons learned from the loss may work to Golden Apples's advantage, Cecil said.

"We couldn't have asked for her to do much more," Cecil said. "I don't think that was her style that day at Keeneland. She was a bit close to the pace and was rank. She wants to come from out of it."

Aside from facing a field that includes 10 stakes winners from 2001, Cecil has kept on eye on the weather.

There is concern among trainers about potential rain on Saturday and that a yielding course could work against closers such as Golden Apples, Janet, and Spook Express.

"Her form says she should handle a yielding turf course," Cecil said. "I don't know if it takes a sting out of her kick."

Typical of recent Matriarch Stakes, the race features shippers from Europe and New York challenging a strong group from California.

Five members of the Matriarch field started in the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 27. Spook Express was second in the Filly and Mare Turf, finishing in front of Crystal Music (seventh) and Starine (10th). Starrer was fifth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, finishing well in front of Tranquility Lake, who was ninth.

Of the two from the Distaff, more will be expected from the front-running Tranquility Lake on Sunday. She won two turf stakes earlier this year and was second to Janet as a strong favorite in the Yellow Ribbon Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 29.

Janet returned to finish third behind Golden Apples in the Las Palmas, and is seeking her fourth stakes win of the year.

"She was coming off a big effort in the Yellow Ribbon and she might have been flat," trainer Darrell Vienna said of the Las Palmas. "She always feels good and she's not an easy read."

Bobby Frankel threw out Starine's loss in the Filly and Mare Turf, blaming the way the race unfolded. He expects her to run back to her victory in the Grade 2 Diana Handicap at Saratoga last September.

"She was out of her style of running," Frankel said. "She was too fresh, she never found cover. Hopefully, he can tuck her in."

Spook Express could be favored. Trained by Tom Skiffington, she finished second in the Beverly D. Stakes last August over yielding turf and won the WinStar Galaxy Stakes at Keeneland in October on a firm course.

Skiffington loves his chances, but respects what Golden Apples has accomplished.

"We're pretty one-dimensional," Skiffington said. "We'll take her back. I was very impressed with Golden Apples at Keeneland. I thought she ran a great race. You have to like her."