10/03/2001 11:00PM

Last sixteenth will be tough

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - In the final sixteenth of a mile, the Arlington Matron could become a war of attrition. Saturday's Grade 3 handicap drew a field of seven fillies and mares when entries were taken Thursday: They have combined to go 1-for-17 in races at nine furlongs, the Matron's distance. The question is who will be finishing at the wire.

It won't be Rose of Zollern, who was supposed to be the starting highweight at 118 pounds, but was withdrawn at the last minute in favor of Sunday's Grade 1 Spinster at Keeneland. That leaves Asher, the only Matron starter to have won at the distance, as the 116-pound highweight.

Asher, a Grade 3 winner of almost $400,000, comes out of a bad loss Sept. 22 in the Turfway Park Breeders' Cup, a race that did nothing to showcase her true ability.

"She really didn't get a hold of the surface there," said trainer Ron Moquett. Asher, a speed horse, made the early lead, but was forced into a very fast pace and tired in the stretch. "She fought off two of them and then she couldn't fight any more," Moquett said.

The bad news for Asher is that she is drawn inside another speed horse, Maltese Superb, who has been on the lead in all four of her dirt races. But trainer Carl Bowman is unwilling to sacrifice his filly to a speed duel. "We may experiment here" with a change in tactics, Bowman said.

"She's either going to be comfortably in front, or she's going to come from off of it this time."

Depending on their trip, either of the two speed horses can win the Matron, which is so competitive that none of the entrants can be comfortably eliminated. The 3-year-old Lakenheath won the Grade 3 Silverbulletday this spring at Fair Grounds and surely needed her last start, a fourth-place finish in a recent overnight handicap here. She should stay the nine furlongs, as should Humble Clerk, who finished a second in front of Lakenheath here last month and, as she did last year, seems to be peaking in early fall.

Lady Melesi finished second in the Grade 3 Sixty Sails the last time she visited Chicago, while Taste the Passion put in an amazingly fast work here Tuesday, going five furlongs in 59 seconds (10 lengths faster than any other horse) with jockey Frank Lovato up. And finally, Instinct is a mud specialist who may get the wet track she needs on Saturday.