12/28/2006 1:00AM

Seemingly certain stardom cut short


ARCADIA, Calif. - It was late on the afternoon of Nov. 26, as Nuno Santos beamed at the sight of Price Tag being led into the winner's circle after taking the Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park. He had good reason. As one of Bobby Frankel's top exercise riders, Santos has had his hands on more than his share of good horses, and Price Tag had become one of them.

Even so, as the Matriarch ceremonies unfolded, Santos could not help letting his thoughts stray to another of his morning partners, a 3-year-old filly who had recently come from France.

"She runs next week," Santos said. "And she is very, very special. Watch for her. Her name is Phantom Rose."

Santos was right. Phantom Rose easily won her American debut at Hollywood Park on Dec. 1, a performance that put her on course for the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes, to be run on the first weekend of the Santa Anita meet.

Unfortunately, the La Brea will be run Saturday without Phantom Rose. On the morning of Dec. 22, the day after La Brea nominations closed, the filly bolted wildly and smashed into the iron outer railing of the Hollywood Park training track. Santos was sent flying, landing hard on his shoulder and head, while Phantom Rose took the brunt of the impact on the stifle joint of her right hind leg. Santos was able to walk away, but the filly was injured beyond repair and had to be mercifully euthanized.

Dr. Wayne McIllwraith, the noted veterinary surgeon, led the team at Hollywood Park's Dolly Green Equine Clinic that tried to save Phantom Rose.

"She broke the lateral condyle when she hit the fence," McIllwraith said. "The tibia was actually displaced one inch laterally. She also broke off the lateral half of her trochlea, which is the groove that takes the patella, which meant the patella was luxated and wouldn't be able to stay in position. Then there was considerable ligamentis disruption as well."

In layman's terms, nearly all of the important components of the major joint of the hind leg were trashed, with nothing substantial enough remaining for even the most skilled surgeon to cobble together. By comparison, the repair of Barbaro's hind leg fractures was a breeze.

"It was horrific," McIllwraith said. "I've never seen an injury that bad - all external trauma from hitting that rail. I was very frustrated I couldn't do anything, but it was a black-and-white answer."

The La Brea still offers an entertaining field, featuring the comeback of Balance, the 2006 Santa Anita Oaks winner. Still, the loss of a potential star like Phantom Rose has the immediate effect of thinning a division that already suffered blows from the death of Pine Island and the retirements of Fleet Indian, Happy Ticket, Hollywood Story, Healthy Addiction, and Star Parade.

In the case of Phantom Rose, however, her death descends to the very fabric of the breed. As a daughter of Honest Lady, the best female sprinter in North America during the 2000 season, Phantom Rose had the very real potential to follow in the footsteps of both her dam and granddam, Toussaud, as gifted progenitors of the breed. And she would have gotten every chance, courtesy of her owner, the Juddmonte Farms of Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah.

Unlike the Maktoums of Dubai, who tend to buy rather than breed most of their marquee horses, Abdullah derives great pleasure from building a talented racehorse from scratch. The industry has recognized the obvious, honoring him with a record four Eclipse Awards as champion breeder.

Reams have been written about the tempestuous Toussaud, the daughter of El Gran Senor who began her career in England, then soared to fame in California with a series of electrifying appearances for Frankel and Juddmonte. Only a championship effort from Flawlessly in the 1993 Matriarch kept Toussaud from an Eclipse Award that year.

As a broodmare, Toussaud has produced not only Honest Lady - second in both the Met Mile and the Breeders' Cup Sprint - but also Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, Arlington Million winner Chester House, Secretariat Stakes winner Chiselling, and Kilroe Mile winner Decarchy. Each one was trained - or, more accurately, tamed - by Frankel.

"I remember watching Toussaud one morning at Keeneland, after we'd brought her over for the Queen Elizabeth II," said Dr. John Chandler, who manages Juddmonte's U.S. operation. "She was going by herself at a two-minute clip down the backside when she suddenly stopped, like she'd run into a wall, just like a roping horse. But the boy riding her didn't move a hair, and I thought, 'That sucker's been there before.'

"And yet they're not mean or anything like that," Chandler said. "Just real quirky. Bobby has seemingly devoted his life to sorting out the family, and like all of them, Phantom Rose required some special handling. What happened was terribly heartbreaking. We were very much looking forward to the La Brea, and beyond."

Juddmonte and Frankel took some solace from Latent Heat's win in Santa Anita's opening day Malibu Stakes, four days after the death of his stablemate. But even in victory, it was hard for Frankel to forget about Phantom Rose.

"It was the saddest I've ever been about something in horse racing," Frankel said. "Only God knows how good she could have been. She was so talented - just like her grandmother, in the best and worst ways."