11/29/2004 1:00AM

Rivalry splendid on the grass


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In theory, they all had a shot. The ground was good. The weights were fair. And the starting gates all opened at the same time. But as far as the Hollywood Park Turf Festival was concerned, if your name wasn't Frankel, Bailey, or Pletcher, you were pretty much out of luck.

In what might turn out to be a budding franchise rivalry - one that only true racing nerds can love - national money-leaders Todd Pletcher and Bobby Frankel traded blows like scrappy middleweights over the holiday weekend until the ref finally stepped in to break it up.

Frankel landed first in the opening division of the Miesque Stakes on Friday with Louvain, an Irish daughter of Sinndar recently arrived from France. Pletcher, represented by assistant Michael "Whitey" McCarthy, countered in the second division with Paddy's Wish, also of Irish descent. Frankel ended Friday's debate by winning the Hollywood Turf Express with Cajun Beat, the Breeders' Cup Sprint winner of 2003 who seems to save his best for California.

On Saturday, the early returns from distant precincts favored Pletcher, who upset the $350,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct with Lion Tamer. Frankel let that result sink in, then bagged the $400,000 Citation Handicap with the unpronounceable Leroidesanimaux, better known as just plain "Leroy" around the barn. Unfazed, McCarthy unleashed Dubleo for team Pletcher to take Hollywood's Generous Stakes and win the day.

That left it up to the $500,000 Matriarch on a bright and chilly Sunday afternoon. Pletcher was on the Hollywood scene to saddle Ocean Drive, while Frankel and his right-hand man, Humberto Ascanio, dealt the Juddmonte fillies Intercontinental and Etoile Montante.

In truth, it wasn't really a fair fight, since Frankel has pretty much made a career of winning the Matriarch. Marking up the trainer's sixth in the last nine years, Intercontinental beat Etoile Montante by two lengths, drawing away, while the relentless Ticker Tape was a close third and Ocean Drive seventh.

Pletcher entered the weekend a million dollars ahead in the standings. As of Monday morning, his lead was sliced in half - $17 million to $16.5 million - but there is still a month to run. Pletcher still has a high card to play in the Hollywood Futurity with Proud Accolade, while Frankel may have fired his last, best shots of the season.

Still, he got the one he wanted. As a daughter of the mare that already produced Banks Hill, Dansili, Cacique, and 2003 Matriarch winner Heat Haze, Intercontinental had more family pressure than a Kennedy. Frankel had circled the Matriarch a long time ago, when she came to the barn last fall bearing respectable French group form.

"No question a mile was her best distance," Frankel said. "The thing about her is, though, she pulls really hard. You've got to deal with that, get her covered and make her try to relax."

That was Jerry Bailey's job. Riding with a fresh surgical scar on the inside of his left wrist and another at the base of his thumb (souvenirs from his losing battle with a ladder), Bailey let Etoile Montante and Edgar Prado set the pace, moved up entering the far turn, and then pushed to the front with about a furlong to go. The toughest thing from there was striking the proper pose.

Last year, Bailey had the choice of riding either Heat Haze or Etoile Montante in the Matriarch and ended up on the wrong one. This time around, he was offered to jump from Intercontinental to the French star Denebola. Frankel, who was watching Intercontinental train like a bomb, waved a red flag.

"He made sure I didn't switch," Bailey said. "Bobby did me a favor by insisting I stay on this one."

Too bad Frankel wasn't around when Bailey climbed that ladder.

Bailey ended the Turf Festival with a flourish by winning the $500,000 Hollywood Derby aboard Good Reward, who was trained by neither Pletcher nor Frankel. Shug McGaughey, the newest Hall of Famer, sent the colt West, accompanied by assistant Graham Wolfram. They were hoping that Bailey could pick up where he left off in September of 2003, the day they collaborated for Good Reward's maiden win at Belmont.

"I couldn't remember him at all," Bailey said. "Graham told me it didn't matter, because he'd become a completely different colt. Turns out he's got gears, multiple moves, which is real handy at a mile and a quarter, because you can move up a spot at a time."

With 13 runners, the Hollywood Derby figured to offer trouble somewhere along the way, and did. The first turn played havoc with the back half of the field, then Good Reward, Imperialism, and Fast and Furious pinballed each other as they entered the stretch. At the finish, it was Good Reward by a half over Fast and Furious. The stewards ruled that the contact was "minimal and mutual."

"I could hear a lot of screaming, especially around the first turn," Bailey said. "I didn't know what was happening, but at least nobody was hitting me from behind. I've always said it's okay to look back . . . just don't stare."

* Apologies from this reporter to Stewart Elliott for getting his Meadowlands meet wrong. He didn't finish third, as written here, but won the title easily, which means a lot. If he can make it there, New York should be a breeze.