11/27/2008 12:00AM

Frankel rules roost of recent Matriarchs


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Matriarch is the best race of the Hollywood Park autumn season, bar none, and when Hollywood Park finally closes, and takes the Matriarch with it, let's just hope the peerless history of the event lives on for at least a little while.

There are few races as resilient as the Matriarch, especially at the

highest levels. In 26 runnings, it has undergone distance changes from nine furlongs to 10 furlongs back to nine furlongs and now to a mile. Since 1999, it has been under attack from the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. In 2005, the Matriarch was canceled outright, when a newly installed grass course failed and turf racing was canceled for the meet.

Yet it persists as the annual valedictory march for what has been, over the past quarter-century, the deepest and most consistently satisfying division in North American racing - fillies and mares on grass. Any race won by Kilijaro, Sangue, Flawlessly, and Royal Heroine deserves to be in the trophy case.

Bobby Frankel won't have any trouble with Matriarch memories, except for maybe keeping them straight. His fillies have won the last four, and five of the last six for a total of eight, nearly a third of those 26 runnings. For those who do not think this is fair, perhaps they can blame the barn - Hollywood's 70-North - which housed the horses trained by Charlie Whittingham before Frankel took up residence. Whittingham won the Matriarch seven times.

Frankel's eight began with Wandesta in 1996, in a championship showdown with Windsharp. Ryafan, his winner in 1997, was more of a nod to John Gosden, who handled the filly until that race, while Happyanunoit (1999) and Starine (2001) were long-term Frankel projects.

More recently, Frankel has been plumbing the depths of a certain Juddmonte Farms family, winning the Matriarch with the half-sisters Heat Haze (2003) and Intercontinental (2004), as well as with Price Tag (2006), who has the dam of Heat Haze and Intercontinental, Hasili, in her pedigree.

On Sunday, Frankel goes for Matriarch No. 9 with defending champ Precious Kitten and Juddmonte's recent import Visit. Both come out of noble fourth-place efforts in Breeders' Cup events, Precious Kitten in the Mile and Visit in the Filly and Mare Turf.

"I thought Precious Kitten ran a big race," Frankel said. "She made the lead inside the eighth pole and just couldn't quite hold on. Visit made the lead in her race, too, but I think the mile and a quarter was a little too far."

It was Tuesday morning, and Frankel was standing just outside his Hollywood barn, which is a relatively quiet place these days. There are only about 20 horses in steady residence, and none of them is named Ventura, Precious Kitten, Visit, Ariege, or Proudinsky. Frankel's best West Coast runners train at Santa Anita instead of Hollywood these days, a dramatic change, prompted by his assessment that "the track is better over there." Enough said.

"I'm not a fan of synthetic tracks," Frankel said. "A horse can get hurt on them the same as dirt. But the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita has been good. They might have finally gotten it right. It took the rain without any problems."

One of the Frankel stars of 2008 who will not be training at Santa Anita, Hollywood or anywhere else in Frankel's world is Vineyard Haven, the best 2-year-old colt he has ever developed and certainly the best he ever owned. After winning the Hopeful and the Champagne Stakes in New York, Frankel sold Vineyard Haven to Godolphin Stables.

Back at Hollywood, Rick Mettee was walking down the main road, saw Frankel, and changed course. Mettee, who trains the U.S.-based Godolphin string, was in town to run Cocoa Beach in the Matriarch, fresh from her second-place finish to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

As assistant to John Gosden in the 1980s, Mettee has Matriarch history of his own. The stable won the race twice, with Royal Heroine and Asteroid Field. More to the point, though, Mettee will be training Vineyard Haven - as well as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman - over the winter months in Dubai at the vast Al Quoz facility, with the 2009 Kentucky Derby as the goal. Right now, both colts are undergoing a quarantine period at Keeneland.

"The gray horse is doing fine, Bobby," Mettee said, reading Frankel's mind. "He's still getting used to the Polytrack surface there. I'd say he's not getting over it quite as well as he was the dirt in New York. I remember watching him at Belmont, how impressive he looked. But he'll get used to it in time, and he'll be training on a Tapeta surface in Dubai."

Frankel pretended not to care, but Mettee knew better. Even though he lights up at the thought of the price he got for Vineyard Haven, Frankel always will wonder how the story might have ended. Vineyard Haven represented Frankel's best shot at the Kentucky Derby since Empire Maker.

"He came around the way you want," Frankel said. "He didn't run lights-out numbers those first couple of races, but you don't want to see that. Those horses get a lot of attention, but they don't last. My colt came along steady until he was just that much better than the others. No way I've got seller's remorse, but you think about it."

And there's always the Matriarch.