11/25/2005 1:00AM

Sharp Cat deserves her day


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There should be a moment of silence observed at Hollywood Park on Sunday for horsemen and fans to pause and reflect as the Matriarch Stakes and the Hollywood Derby lie in state on the day normally reserved for their renewals.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving has been established as the final world-class afternoon of the California season, with horses and their people coming from far and wide to run in the Matriarch and the derby.

From inaugural winner Kilijaro in 1981 to last year's authoritative victory by Intercontinental, the Matriarch has attracted the very best among turf mares, even holding its quality in the seven years since the advent of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

As for the Hollywood Derby, no major California race has gone through more facelifts. It began as a summertime 1 1/4-mile main track event, spent a decade being called the Westerner, then was switched to early spring and positioned as a nine-furlong Kentucky Derby prep. Since 1981 it has been run in the fall and moved to the grass, first at 1 1/8 miles and then, since 2003, at 1 1/4 miles.

Confusing, perhaps. But at least there was always a Hollywood Derby, or a very good reason if there was not. Prior to this year's horticultural nightmare, the only interruption was a three-year hibernation caused by a little fracas called World War II.

In the end, the loss of day-to-day grass racing at the autumn meet can be survived. There is even the radical notion afoot that local grass runners might be enjoying their break of one or two starts between Halloween and Christmas.

There should be no joy, however, over the loss of races like the Matriarch and the derby. History is made in these events, and their sudden disappearance from the scene feels every bit as unnerving as the small type next to the 1994 World Series: "Players' strike - canceled."

The $100,000 stakes race for 2-year-old fillies that was cobbled together at the last minute to headline Sunday's card is a far cry from derby or Matriarch quality. If nothing else, though, it was well named.

The Sharp Cat Stakes honors one of the most flamboyant fillies of the late 1990's, a highly strung daughter of Storm Cat who was very much her daddy's little girl. She also has been a case study in the economics of the Thoroughbred, having been sold at auction for $82,000 as a weanling, $205,000 as a yearling, $900,000 as a 2-year-old, and finally $3.1 million as a broodmare, prompted by the death of her owner, Prince Ahmed Salman, in July of 2002. She is now owned by Sheikh Mohammed.

Sharp Cat was never a champion, but she probably would have been in 1998 had she not suffered a debilitating bout of colic on the eve of the 1998 Breeders' Cup Distaff, in which she would have gone favored. Escena ended up winning the race and with it the Eclipse Award.

Even though Sharp Cat raced both East and West during her 22-race, 15-win career, her history is dotted with significant Hollywood Park appearances.

She made her debut there for Salman, on July 7, 1996, and was well beaten in a maiden race at 3-5. Later that same year, she returned to California to win the Hollywood Starlet Stakes, then the following summer she took the Hollywood Oaks. Scattered in among those races were victories in the Del Mar Debutante, the Matron and Acorn at Belmont, and the Santa Anita Oaks.

Her last Hollywood start, in the 1997 Bayakoa Handicap, was pure exhibition. It also could have been the end of the line. Reduced to a walkover, the Bayakoa was contested over a packed-down racetrack topped by a layer of coarse, sandy slurry. Sharp Cat could have fulfilled her obligations with a lazy jog around the middle of the course. Instead, riding to the instructions of her trainer, Wayne Lukas, Alex Solis let her ramble at near racing pace. Sharp Cat's reward was two badly burned heels, run down right through a set of protective bandages.

Her recovery was delayed by an infection, and by the time she returned as a 4-year-old, during the summer of 1998, she was being trained by Wally Dollase. Sharp Cat proceeded to win four straight, including the Ruffian and the Beldame, and needed only the Distaff at Churchill Downs to complete a perfect year.

Nothing was ever simple with Sharp Cat, though, and that included her colic. Her kidneys nearly failed, and her battle with toxic shock left the muscles of her shoulders and hips badly atrophied. By the time she was moved to Alice Chandler's Mill Ridge Farm near Lexington she was improving, but her future as a broodmare was in doubt.

Then she fooled 'em again. Since the spring of 2000, Sharp Cat has been a reliable mama. She has lost only one foal, and that was in 2001 when she was among the hundreds stricken by mare reproductive loss syndrome.

"Obviously, the tender loving care she received after her illness was a big help," said Jimmy Bell, who manages Sheik Mohammed's Darley at Jonabell Farm. "She's been a steady producer. And she's in pretty good company here."

He wasn't kidding. Among the 110 or so mares on the vast Darley acreage are Ashado, Imperial Gesture, Manistique, Cara Rafaela, and Unbridled Elaine. Clearly, Sharp Cat fits right in.