11/28/2003 12:00AM

Matriarch has decided French flair

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The reconfigured Matriarch Stakes on Sunday at Hollywood Park may have the best field of turf females assembled this year for a race without the Breeders' Cup in its title.

For the first time in the 23-year history of the Matriarch, the $500,000 race is being run over a mile on turf, having been run at 1 1/8 miles in recent years.

The Matriarch has been enthusiastically supported, drawing the winners of four Grade 1 or Group 1 races in 2003 - Etoile Montante, Heat Haze, Island Fashion, and Musical Chimes.

Eight others entrants are graded or group stakes winners this year - Acago, Belleski, Chopinina, Dancal, Dress to Thrill, Magic Mission, Maiden Tower, and Mer de Corail. The field also includes Dedication and Garden in the Rain, who were stakes placed earlier this year.

"There are 13 I'm worried about," said trainer Eoin Harty, who starts Maiden Tower for Sheikh Mohammed. "It's an outstanding bunch of horses."

The Matriarch will be run as the sixth race on a 10-race program that includes the $600,000 Hollywood Derby, the ninth race. The card features a guaranteed pick six pool of $1 million, which covers the fifth through 10th races.

Etoile Montante, the winner of the Group 1 Prix de la Foret in France last month, is the likely favorite even though she has drawn post 1, a tough post in a large field. A 3-year-old, Etoile Montante has finished in the first three in her last five starts, a span that began with a third-place finish last May in the French 1000 Guineas behind Matriarch rivals Musical Chimes and Maiden Tower.

Those three, along with recent imports Acago and Mer de Corail, give the Matriarch a strong French influence.

The Matriarch will be Etoile Montante's final start for trainer Christiane Head-Maarek before she is transferred to Bobby Frankel.

Musical Chimes ran twice at Santa Anita during the Oak Tree meeting, finishing second in the Yellow Ribbon but 11th in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf on Oct. 25.

Maiden Tower was second in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland last month.

The domestic team is led by Heat Haze, the winner of the Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park; Island Fashion, the winner of the Alabama Stakes, who is making her turf debut; and Dress to Thrill, who won the Matriarch Stakes last year.

Even though Etoile Montante and Heat Haze are owned by Juddmonte Farms, they will not run as an entry because Hollywood Park received a waiver from the California Horse Racing Board that allows all horses in the race to run as separate betting entities.

An entry of Etoile Montante and Heat Haze would have been heavily favored. Now bettors must choose between those two while factoring in the chances of several others.

Belleski, who has drawn the outside post, was a sharp winner of the Ken Maddy Sprint on the hillside turf course at Santa Anita last month. Acago, previously trained by Head-Maarek, was sixth in the French 1000 Guineas and second to Maiden Tower in the Group 2 Prix de Sandringham. She is likely to race from a stalking position in her first start for trainer Richard Mandella.

Etoile Montante, ridden by Jerry Bailey, is likely to stalk the pace, which should come from Chopinina, Dancal, and Maiden Tower.

Heat Haze is a closer who can give trainer Bobby Frankel his fifth Matriarch win. Fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, Heat Haze is winless in her last two starts, including a third in the Flower Bowl over 1 1/4 miles on turf.

"She's a great miler," Frankel said. "Coming off the long races and with the firm turf, I don't know what to expect."

Earlier this year at Churchill Downs, Heat Haze scored a stylish win in the Citgo Distaff Turf Mile against a weaker field, but Frankel notes she had been running in sprints before that race. He says he will be cheering for both Heat Haze and Etoile Montante.

"I'll be happy if either win," he said. "I'll be really happy if Heat Haze wins, but I'll be happy if the other one wins because I'm getting her afterwards."