05/28/2001 11:00PM

A third act in the Riboletta story

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - This is supposed to be an exciting week for the top mares in Southern California. They are being prepared for the Milady Handicap on Sunday at Hollywood Park, a race that usually impacts the national consciousness. A Gleam beat Two Lea in the first one back in 1952. Things haven't slipped much since then.

Such accomplished mares as Feverish, Printemps, and Lazy Slusan are being prepared for the Milady this time around, which means it should be a head-banger of a race. But please forgive the people involved if they are feeling badly upstaged. Despite the fine credentials of the Milady mares, all eyes are averted this week to a stall at Santa Anita Park, lined in satin and draped in finest silk, where the queen has returned to claim her throne.

Big Mama is back in the house.

Riboletta, the champion older mare of the year 2000, numbered the Milady among her seven major stakes wins last season. On the only day she didn't fire for owners Aaron and Marie Jones, a ligament betrayed her in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs, sending her into retirement at Taylor Made Farm and a date with the young Jones stallion Forestry.

Sadly, Riboletta was not spared the trauma that has befallen so many mares in Kentucky this spring. She lost her Forestry foal, and the crop of 2002 was deprived of a potential star.

Still, Riboletta remained strong. A massive mare with an ego to match, she appeared to recover quickly from the loss of her budding fetus. Furthermore, the injured ligament was scanning clean after six months of rest, her eye was bright and her coat was gleaming. When someone whispered, "She looks like she could run again," the idea took hold.

On Tuesday, Riboletta's plane touched down at Ontario International Airport, just east of Santa Anita Park, after which a van conveyed her safely to the stable of Eduardo Inda. Christmas doesn't get better than this. A colt named Timber Yield was asked to give up his stall, which he did without fuss, so that Riboletta could enjoy a soothing cross breeze on hot Arcadia afternoons during the next six weeks. After that, she will join the Inda stable at Del Mar.

The idea of bringing a horse out of retirement is not unusual. Mares in foal have raced successfully in the past. Even stallions have made the transition back into racing trim. A horse named Silveyville, winner of the 1981 Hollywood Derby, shuttled back and forth between the breeding shed and the racetrack for so many seasons that he came perilously close to running against his own sons and daughters.

At Riboletta's level, however, the examples are few and far between. The economics of risk take over. Even with a fallow year at stud, the 6-year-old Riboletta remains a pearl of great price for the foals she will carry to term in the future.

If Inda is feeling any pressure, his broad grin is hiding it well. When he said goodbye to Riboletta at Churchill Downs last November, he was content to close the book on the best chapter in his career. Now, there could be a new ending.

"She looks good," Inda said shortly after Riboletta's safe arrival. "I mean, she looks very, very good. I thought she might get a little hot on the ride from the airport, but she's nice and dry. Her coat looks one hundred percent. She does have a little bit of a belly, just like me.

"When Mr. Jones decided to bring her back, they put her in the big sun pen at the farm. No grass. She started playing around, getting a little fit right there. That was about 10 days ago.

"I was very happy when I saw her leg," the trainer went on. "Good and tight. You wouldn't know there was a problem. It was a ligament in the pastern, from the ankle down to the hoof. Any other horse, you give them four months' rest and they could be okay. But she's the kind of filly, you don't ever want to take any chances."

But isn't a comeback from broodmare status taking a chance under any terms?

"We're going to watch her very close," Inda promised. "If anything shows up, we stop her in a minute. We will take no chances.

"We'll just ride her around a little at first, then jog and gallop her at least for a month before we start training her hard and working her," he added. "Mr. Jones is putting no pressure on me. And I'm not looking at any races until everything with her is ready."

Maybe so. But Inda at least has the dates penciled on his calendar for the Ruffian, the Beldame and the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Belmont Park - if Riboletta comes around to his satisfaction by September. With no dominant older mare emerging so far this year, the championship of the division still could be very much up for grabs.

"Right now, we are all just excited to see her again," Inda said. "Her exercise rider, her groom - Juan Ornelas - we might have a party tonight. Our lucky charm is back."