12/03/2004 12:00AM

'Cousin Matt' next Underwood legend?


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Let's see who has been paying attention. The Vernon O. Underwood Handicap at Hollywood Park on Sunday is named in honor of the man who:

a. Invented a now obsolete piece of office machinery known as the typewriter, named it after himself, and sold a dozen of them to the Hollywood Park front office, where they are still awaiting replacement ribbons.

b. Was the first to notice that there were both lakes AND flowers in the Hollywood Park infield, hence the track's quaint nickname, which sounds much better than the Track of the Recycled Backstretch Run-off Water Reservoir and Flowers.

c. As a top executive with Young's Market - one of California's leading distributors of gourmet foods and distilled spirits - provided Hollywood Park fans with thousands of gallons of refreshing alcoholic beverages and ended up on the racetrack's board of directors, eventually becoming CEO and chairman of the board during the 1970's and into the 1980's.

Raise a glass. The answer is "c." Vernon Underwood, a pioneer L.A. businessman, presided over 13 years of exciting Hollywood Park history, a period during which the track:

* Lured Seattle Slew out West, fresh from his sweep of the 1977 Triple Crown.

* Expanded the Southern California season to 12 months with high-stakes racing in November and December.

* Inaugurated the pick six.

As a lasting memorial, the pick six figures to reverberate longer than a race like the Underwood. From 1981 through 1989, the race was called the National Sprint Championship, which it never was, but still it has provided its share of late-season entertainment.

Past winners Wekiva Springs, Bedside Promise, and Fighting Fit earned reputations beyond the six furlongs required by the Underwood. Three-year-olds have done well - among them Pancho Villa, Five Star Day, and Debonair Joe - while the brilliant fillies Lovlier Linda, Meafara, and Love That Jazz stepped up to beat the boys.

In last year's Underwood, Our New Recruit tipped the form that carried forward to victory in Dubai's Golden Shaheen when he finished a sharp second to the Bobby Frankel-trained Watchem Smokey. Both of those horses are back again on Saturday, older and wiser, along with middle-distance runners Star Cross and Taste of Paradise.

Attention also will be paid to My Cousin Matt, a member of the vast Richard Englander stable who is now a full-time resident of the Jeff Mullins barn.

Englander claimed My Cousin Matt for $100,000 in September 2002 out of a race at Belmont Park and turned him over to Scott Lake. While with Lake, Matt knocked off stakes in Texas and Maryland and ran a respectable fifth in the 2003 Golden Shaheen. He also faced such monsters as Ghostzapper, Aldebaran, and Speightstown before resettling in California in mid-September.

At first, My Cousin Matt did not fancy himself a California boy, even though his sire, Matty G., had won the 1995 running of the Hollywood Futurity. Perhaps the memory of his sixth-place finish in the 2003 Malibu Stakes lingered. Maybe it was the water, the air, or the lack of a pro football team in L.A.

"It takes a while to get to know a horse like him," Mullins said. "But he sure seems happier than when he first arrived. I don't know if he was just a little down from the trip out here or what. Then he just changed. He went from standing in the back of the stall to coming to the front, trying to bite you, asking for attention."

Mullins did not have a particularly ambitious plan in mind for My Cousin Matt, but Englander shook things up by pre-entering his horse in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Lone Star on Oct. 30. To that point, the horse did not have a single 2004 Breeders' Cup point to his name, but it didn't matter. When only 13 entered, he was part of the field.

"We were already scheduled to be in the middle of moving into a new house that weekend," Mullins said. "I couldn't hardly leave my wife and kids to do all that. My buddy John Martin from up north was heading that way, so he saddled him for me."

At Lone Star, My Cousin Matt, at odds of 60-1, ran one of his best races by finishing third, just two lengths behind victorious Speightstown and lapped on runner-up Kela.

"I watched the race from the last TV set left in the old house," Mullins recalled. "All the rest of furniture was loaded on the van. After the race was run, we grabbed that set and headed to the new house.

"The heck of it is, we missed a work with him out here because of the weather," Mullins added. "Otherwise he might have run even better."

On Saturday, My Cousin Matt will be reunited with his Breeders' Cup rider, Ramon Dominguez. They will have to be on their game to handle what has turned out to be a pretty salty Underwood field.

"Yeah, it is," Mullins said. "But I don't think it gets any saltier than the Breeders' Cup, does it?"