11/08/2003 1:00AM

Question of distance a big one


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - As a modest public service, here are a few things that should be kept in mind for the celebration of Veterans Day on Tuesday, Nov. 11, most of it gleaned from the website maintained by the Veterans Administration.

- There are 26.5 million U.S. military veterans in the general population, as of the census taken in 2000.

- There are an estimated 1.4 million personnel currently on active duty in the U.S. military, plus another 154,000 in National Guard and reserve units.

- At no point in his Presidency did Richard Nixon ever deliver the featured address at the Veterans Day ceremonies in Washington, D. C.

- Jennifer Love Hewitt is the National Honorary Spokesperson for the 2003 Veterans Day observance. Sarah rocks!

- Hollywood Park opens its autumn racing season on Veterans Day with a special Tuesday program.

Okay, so the VA didn't mention anything about Hollywood's opening day. And that's a shame, because Hollywood Park is offering free admission on Veterans Day to any card-carrying veteran or current member of the U.S. military. There are about 2.5 million veterans in California alone, so if word gets out it should be a pretty good crowd.

After that, the horse racing will have to carry the promotional load. Hollywood's autumn meet usually suffers aesthetically from its position at the tail of the calendar. Horsemen are tired. The horse population has become thin. And competition from holiday activities cuts deeply into handle and purses.

Still, there is always good reason to pay attention, because the Hollywood autumn stakes schedule can be both locally entertaining and nationally significant. The major races - eight in all - cover all the divisional ground and many times attract refugees from the descending cold of the East Coast and Europe.

It is recommended, however, that this year's visitors check their stakes schedules closely, because two key pieces of the landscape have changed - one for the better and the other . . . well, you be the judge.

The Matriarch for fillies and mares on the grass has been shortened from 1 1/8 miles to a new route of a simple, solitary mile, while the Hollywood Derby, for 3-year-olds on the grass, was lengthened from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/4 miles, and increased in value to $600,000. Both races will be run on Sunday, Nov. 30.

The change in the Matriarch marks the latest surrender to the impact of the Breeders' Cup, which added the Filly and Mare Turf in 1999. But don't be surprised. There is precedent, even among the most treasured fixtures.

The revered Jockey Club Gold Cup went from 12 to 10 furlongs under pressure from the presence of the Breeders' Cup Classic. The Washington D.C. International, once America's most famous mile and a half on grass, was rendered a mere prep by the Breeders' Cup Turf. It was cut to a mile, then disappeared like the dodo.

Martin Panza, Hollywood's racing secretary, is hoping that the one-mile Matriarch will become an alternative to the Breeders' Cup Mile for overmatched fillies and mares. With a purse of $500,000, it just might.

Still, the distance brings baggage. There is no domestic talent pool, because there are no serious one-mile grass races anywhere in the United States for fillies and mares, and with good reason, since most American turf courses are less than one mile in circumference. A one-mile grass event with a large field becomes a crapshoot based on luck of the draw and survival of the first turn. Hollywood's grass layout - inside its nine-furlong main track - is even more unsatisfactory, because there is an even shorter run-up to that perilous first turn going a mile.

In lengthening the derby, however, Hollywood may be serving the cause of a better breed of animal. By the end of a 3-year-old campaign, a good grass horse should be able to stand 10 furlongs at a challenging pace. Stars for the following grass season could be born. The 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby plays right into the hands of owners, breeders and trainers who still value the concept of both speed and endurance.

Paco Gonzalez is one of them. He will be passing up Hollywood's opening day Bien Bien Stakes with Buckland Manor in order to have the colt fresh and fit for the Hollywood Derby. The Bien Bien, named for the flashy chestnut grass star of the early 1990's, is at one mile.

Buckland Manor, owned by John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, is coming off back-to-back grass allowance wins during the Oak Tree meet. He mixed it up with the big boys last winter - Buddy Gil, Atswhatimtalknbout - but a throat operation and a sore splint bone forced him to miss the spring and summer.

"I know the Bien Bien looks like it's coming up easy, but if I run him there, then in the Derby, that would be three races in six weeks," Gonzalez said. "This way is much better. I've got three more weeks, and I know he'll like a mile and a quarter."

He should. Buckland Manor's sire is Bien Bien, and Bien Bien holds the Hollywood Park turf course record for a mile and one-quarter. That, and he was trained by Paco Gonzalez.