10/26/2005 11:00PM

Curtain call for trio of hardy mares

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Jimmy Toner will send out Wonder Again to face Riskaverse for the 13th and final time.

ELMONT, N.Y. - When the horses have come back to be unsaddled after the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and are being walked bareback to their stalls, it will mark the end of an era. Next year at this time, if things go according to plan, Riskaverse, Wonder Again, and Megahertz will have shed their racing gear. They will be grazing in some field, pregnant with their first foal.

The three have combined to earn nearly $6 million in purses and win 30 races. And in an age of attrition, they have kept coming back for more, year after year. All were born in 1999, and have raced at the highest level since age 3.

"The time goes by so quickly," said Jimmy Toner, Wonder Again's trainer.

have staged a rivalry that borders on epic. They have met 12 times, and each has beaten the other six times. Consider that in more than half her races, Wonder Again has lined up in the same starting gate as Riskaverse.

has had no such rival in California since 2003. In her last nine starts against females on the West Coast, Megahertz has won eight times, not bad for a horse who began her career four seasons ago in French claiming races.

"She's a star," said trainer Bobby Frankel. "She's one of the most popular horses in California."

Frankel's poker face crumbles when he gets started on Megahertz. At 2, before she had raced in the U.S., he sold her to owner Michael Bello, the first horse Frankel trained for Bello. On the surface, it was a questionable call, hooking up a new client with a claiming filly with little proven form. And Frankel delights in Megahertz's mighty mite stature. Megahertz is no taller than a large pony. Her coat gleams now, but when she first came from France, her hair was long and ragged. Before she made her way to California, Megahertz was virtually un-trainable: Each morning, she would dump her rider.

"She's still got a little mean streak to her," Frankel said.

Wonder Again is a mare of average size, and a horse of a different temperament than Megahertz. She has tested the patience and skill of the people who handle her.

"She's high maintenance in a lot of ways," Toner said. "Physically, not so much, but more mentally. She has been a joy to have, but she has been a project in her own right."

Like many fillies, Wonder Again is easily upset. Nervous fillies can be difficult to train, difficult to keep robust. For Toner to take Wonder Again out of the strictest of regimens earlier in her career would have risked serious setback.

"If you would look at her the wrong way, she would colic," he said. "You couldn't ship her."

But running out of her own stall, Wonder Again could turn in spectacular races. She won the 2004 Diana Handicap at Saratoga by almost six lengths. And by last year, Toner had even taught Wonder Again to travel: She flew to Dallas and was a good third in the Filly and Mare Turf.

Riskaverse, who stables a short walk from Wonder Again at Belmont, is totally different. She has been to California twice, to Keeneland, Churchill, Arlington, and Lone Star.

"She loves to fly," said trainer Pat Kelly.

Kelly is winning races at a 7-percent clip this year. Who cares? He has done great work developing the truly talented horses that have come to his barn, such as Evening Attire and Riskaverse. Kelly's horses don't flash into top form and disappear.

"I don't work them fast," said Kelly. "I try to get them fit and keep them happy in between races. This new-school stuff of three or four months between every race, I don't know about that."

Kelly is the turtle in a sport ruled by hares. He keeps moving inexorably forward. Riskaverse has endured lengthy losing streaks, but inevitably, she pops up and wins the big one. Two years in a row, she has won the Grade 1 Flower Bowl here. When she won it three weeks ago, she paid $73, which is not so surprising, since in 31 starts, Riskaverse has been favored exactly twice.

This is Riskaverse's fourth Breeders' Cup, but she has never finished better than sixth.

"We've all been a big, happy family - except in the Breeders' Cup," Kelly said. "The Breeders' Cup was the reason we brought her back this year. This is her home court."

Wonder Again also excels at Belmont, and she loves the wet course on which turf races will be run Saturday. Not Megahertz. She finished a close second over yielding ground this summer in the Beverly D., but Frankel remains convinced she prefers a fast course.

"It's just a shame she won't get the right grass," Frankel said.

But even if Megahertz loses, even if all three of these mares fail on Saturday, their absence will be felt next season.