11/28/2003 1:00AM

Thumbs up to Matriarch makeover


INGLEWOOD. Calif. - The future book favorite for the 2004 Kentucky Derby has spent the last month in quarantine at the L.A. County fairgrounds. He has been in light training, with a number of his stablemates, while all around him the off-season activities of Fairplex Park have unfolded. They have included drag racing, motor cross, and, more recently, nightly fireworks.

Sounds like the perfect way to prepare for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Ruler's Court, the 14-length winner of the Oct. 5 Norfolk Stakes in race record time, will be heading to Dubai next week to take up residence at the private training center known as Al Quoz, home of Godolphin Racing. The plan is to prepare Ruler's Court under the watchful presence of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, "the boss" of the Godolphin operation, then return the colt to American soil next year for the Kentucky Derby. Anyway, that's the plan.

Eoin Harty, who trained Ruler's Court to win the 1 1/16-mile Norfolk after a series of sprint efforts, is traveling from California to Dubai next week as well. In the past, he would stay there and set up shop at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse. This year, a different set of orders have been cut. Harty will remain in California this winter, training a stable of about 40 at Santa Anita for Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stud.

Harty is taking the departure of Ruler's Court in stride. There probably are better jobs in racing, but Harty can't think of what they might be. Besides, there are consolations. About the same time he was bidding farewell to Ruler's Court, Harty was making room for Darley's 3-year-old filly Maiden Tower, one of the best of her generation this year in France.

"I love her," Harty gushed. "I love her mentality. She's tough as nails. She's not very big, but very robust, and she eats the bottom out of her feed tub. If anything, she wants to do too much. It's all we can do to try and settle her some, just keeping her with a pony. But she's starting to wear out the ponies."

Maiden Tower arrived on these shores for the Queen Elizabeth Cup at Keeneland on Oct. 11 and came within a nose of beating Film Maker after a rocky final furlong. Prior to that she was mixing it up with an all-star collection of French fillies in some of the division's top events.

In 8 starts, Maiden Tower has 5 wins and 3 seconds while in the care of her French trainer, Alex Pantall. Though hardly a household name in North America, Pantall has an enviable record that is appreciated in all the right places. He trains what amounts to the fourth string of Sheikh Mohammed's deep bench, and produces consistently admirable results.

"As far as I'm concerned, with what he gets out of the horses he's given, Alex Pantall is a legend, and I've never even met the man," Harty said. "It's my job to maintain the form she was in when she came to me."

Maiden Tower's excellent record will be sorely tested on Sunday when she goes forth in Hollywood's $500,000 Matriarch, the crowning jewel of California's filly and mare turf season. The Matriarch shares the bill with the $600,000 Hollywood Derby, making it the centerpiece program of the fall season.

Management's decision to switch the Matriarch from nine furlongs to a mile on the grass has paid off in spades. If there was a Breeders' Cup Mile for fillies and mares, this is probably what it would look like.

Harty has spent the past month preparing Maiden Tower for the Matriarch, blissfully innocent as the field came together. After a full gate of 14 entered - populated by the likes of Heat Haze, Musical Chimes, Dedication, Etoile Montante, and defending champ Dress to Thrill - it was finally time to confront reality. Harty was glad he was sitting down.

"I took one look at the past performances and almost threw up," the trainer confessed.

Once the dizziness passed, Harty had to admit that Maiden Tower's best race puts her right in the thick of the Matriarch.

"I have no idea what kind of price she'll be," Harty said. "But I can guarantee one thing. She will give her backers everything she's got, and you can bet they'll get their money's worth."

This is not the first time the distance of the Matriarch has been changed. From 1995 through 1998 it was run at 1 1/4 miles, then it returned to its traditional 1 1/8 miles without losing a beat.

The mile, however, alters the nature of the race and dictates both a different talent pool and style of running. If it catches on - and it looks like it has already - this is the right time for a fond farewell to the Matriarch as we knew it, won by many of the best middle-distance turf fillies and mares of the past 22 years.

So enjoy the new Matriarch, but keep a light burning for the memory of Kilijaro, Sangue, Royal Heroine, Nastique, Exchange, Wandesta, Ryafan, Tout Charmant, and three-time winner Flawlessly, who spent her career living up to her name.