11/23/2012 4:21PM

Hovdey: Matriarch bears the mark of great ones

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The Matriarch, a stakes event on the grass for fillies and mares, has been run at Hollywood Park since 1981. It has been won by broad representation of noteworthy trainers, including Robert Wheeler, Ron McAnally, Steve Rieser, Dermot Weld, Ben Cecil, Steve DiMauro, Bill Mott, John Gosden, Graham Motion, Henry Moreno, and Bill Spawr.

They were, however, exceptions to what appeared to be a very strict Matriarch rule, almost cosmic in its application. Throughout the rich and entertaining history of the race, traditionally run somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, if you didn’t wake up that morning as either Charlie Whittingham or Bobby Frankel you were pretty much out of luck.

Whittingham won the first Matriarch in 1981 with Kilijaro, a ferocious black mare, and won the second Matriarch with Castilla, a daughter of Bold Reason. He took another one a few year later with Fact Finder, owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt, then won three straight with Lou and Patrice Wolfson’s Flawlessly, which helped pave her way into the Hall of Fame.

Whittingham stopped winning Matriarchs in 1993, when he was 80. Frankel began winning them in 1996, when his connection with Juddmonte Farm solidified into a steady stream of imported talent.

First came Wandesta for Juddmonte, a big red thing, then graceful Ryafan, who was a late-season hand-off from John Gosden. Frankel won it with John Amerman’s New Zealand mare Happyanunoit. He won it with his own Irish mare, Starine. He then won four straight runnings of the race with Heat Haze, Intercontinental, Price Tag, and Precious Kitten, a perfect streak interrupted only by the fact that in 2005 Hollywood Park’s turf course was ruined and the race was not run.

It can be argued, and only the literal-minded would disagree, that Frankel also won the Matriarch in 2009 with Juddmonte’s explosive mare Ventura even though he died after a long fight with cancer 12 days before the race was run. Those in attendance that emotional afternoon were made completely aware by Frankel’s assistant, Humberto Ascanio, that one of Bobby’s last wishes from his sick bed was that Ventura give the Matriarch a try even though she had just been beaten three weeks earlier in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

Ascanio got the credit for Ventura’s win, and nobody complained. After all, Ascanio had been by Frankel’s side for more than 30 years, working his way up the ranks. It was Ascanio in the trenches while Frankel ran the show. Ascanio handling the California stable when Frankel stayed in New York. No one ever suggested that Ascanio was the power behind the throne – Humberto least of all – but Ascanio was one of the bedrock reasons for the barn’s success. “When I first went to work for Bobby we had $5,000 claimers,” Ascanio said this week. “Allowance horses were a big deal. He always said he wanted to train better horses, and when he got them he said, ‘That’s it. No more claimers.’

“But he always treated every horse like he was a good horse,” Ascanio added. “He loved his horses.”

Ascanio, 65, spends most of his time these days in the hard work of recovery from the effects of a stroke he suffered on Dec. 30, 2011. He was hospitalized for a period of time and has been undergoing physical therapy since.

“My right arm is not so good,” Ascanio said. “But I walk every day and I do fine. I don’t drive – that wouldn’t be safe yet – but I exercise and I try to be patient. It goes slow.”

At the time of his stroke, Ascanio had a stable of about a dozen horses. One of them, the 10-year-old Porfido, is still winning races for trainer Eoin Harty, most recently Nov. 10 on the Hollywood turf. Porfido began his career with Frankel.

“I saw that he won,” Ascanio said. “That old horse might run forever.”

Traces of Frankel and Ascanio can be found all over the field for Sunday’s running of the Matriarch. Juddmonte will be represented by the British mare Emulous, trained by Dermot Weld. Sands Point winner Better Lucky, in from New York for Tom Albertrani, is a daughter of Ghostzapper, and Ghostzapper was the best horse Frankel ever trained. Then there is Dayatthespa, a perfect 6 for 6 this season for Chad Brown, who learned his trade from Frankel.

“Chad came to visit me here at the house when he was here for the Breeders’ Cup,” Ascanio said. “I told him I was very proud of how he has done.”

Brown followed up that visit by winning the Filly and Mare Turf with Zagora.

“I remember when he first came to work for Bobby,” Ascanio said. “He worked hard and wanted to learn. I know there were times he didn’t think Bobby even knew his name. But he did, and I told him Bobby would be very proud of him, too.”

Ascanio was asked if he had a favorite Matriarch memory. He demurred, and not because his memory was faulty.

“There were just so many good fillies and mares,” he said. “And this time of year was very big, with the Turf Festival. It felt like Bobby owned it almost.”

Ascanio admits to the predictable mood swings experienced by someone whose life was so suddenly changed by a physical affliction. Calls from friends are welcome, though they also remind him of the work he would still love to be doing. He has yet to make a return appearance at the races.

“Maybe when Chad comes out this weekend,” Ascanio said. “I don’t know.”

Or maybe Ascanio could be Santa Anita’s special guest for the Robert Frankel Stakes, one of the highlights of the track’s opening week between Christmas and New Year’s. The race is on the grass for fillies and mares, and the date – Dec. 30 – deserves a better memory than the last one.

Jordan More than 1 year ago
More great stuff Jay. All the best to Humberto.