11/29/2002 1:00AM

Two big-race picks, neither obvious

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Handicapping the Matriarch puts a bettor between a rock and a hard place. The Hollywood Derby is more like a minefield. But both races seem playable.

Matriarch: Try beating the favorites

The rock and the hard place in the Matriarch take the form of Banks Hill and Golden Apples. The former was last year's turf distaff champion; the latter likely this year's turf distaff champion barring something unforeseen. Trouble is, neither represents any value. One figures about 6-5, the other 7-5. So where does that leave you? Obviously, you can't make money boxing the two. You likely have to take a stand with one and against the other, at least on top, and hope you are right.

But, maybe, the answer lies elsewhere.

Dress to Thrill went into the Breeders' Cup Mile as a 3-year-old filly against the boys, which was tough enough. However, her participation there was certainly warranted. After a strong juvenile campaign, she didn't race this year until July because of injury. When she did return, however, she did so with her guns blazing. She rattled off four straight impressive wins in Ireland for trainer Dermot Weld, including the Group 3 Desmond against males, Group 3 Matron, and Group 2 Sun Chariot. All four wins came at a mile. In the BC Mile she was up against it before she even saw the track - her draw (post 12) pretty much eliminated her from the start. Not surprisingly, after a sluggish start she was very wide all the way around, ending up eighth. A filly can't give up that kind of ground to top horses and still compete. Yet Dress to Thrill was beaten only a head and nose by such a talent as Beat Hollow.

Her connections had mentioned the Matriarch back in the late summer as a target, while at the same time pondering a go in the BC Mile. In other words, they have no doubts about her quality, and bettors shouldn't either. She's a viable option here, particularly at about 6-1 or so.

Sure, Banks Hill and Golden Apples will be formidable, but at 6-1 or higher I'll use Dress to Thrill to win and box her with both favorites in the exacta.

Hollywood Derby: Gem of a race

Opinions on this race can hinge on any number of things. Century City gave Rock of Gibraltar a scare in Europe, then closed impressively after a terrible start to be third in the Bay Meadows Derby. But will bettors overemphasize that finish, and is Century City really that good? Royal Gem, after all, beat him and is back for more, with Jerry Bailey seeing fit to ride. Inesperado, like Royal Gem a Bobby Frankel-trained runner, was the top 3-year-old turf horse on the West Coast until a recent dull run in the Oak Tree Derby. But was that a case of his form tailing off, or did he simply not like the Santa Anita turf course as much as he liked this course or Del Mar's?

Johar is solid, and his Oak Tree Derby win was his best race yet. But Inesperado has beaten him more times than not, and what if Johar loves the Santa Anita turf course but not Hollywood's?

Rock Opera showed he could go 1 1/8 miles. Music's Storm looked good winning the restricted Bien Bien, but does that put him in the same league as the aforementioned top 3-year-olds? How do Union Place's East Coast exploits measure up?

The bottom line is that you may well have to watch the board before you come to a conclusion. My feeling is that the public will react strongly to Century City's company line showing Rock of Gibraltar and to his well-publicized bad trip at Bay Meadows, which trainer Beau Greely has said was designed as a prep for this race. If so, it follows that Inesperado and Johar's strong form throughout the last few months will earn them considerable backing at the windows.

What that may translate into is an overlay on Royal Gem. A son of Royal Academy, himself a BC Mile winner and sire of BC Mile winner Val Royal, Royal Gem has plenty of ability, but the public may see his Bay Meadows Derby win as deserving an asterisk - that Century City's trouble led to his defeat more than Royal Gem's ability.

Truth is, while Century City did give them a head start, what is to prevent that from happening again? Century City worked at the gate since, but wouldn't be the first Euro to come here and show little or no tactical speed.

It's not like Royal Gem benefitted from anything special up front, either. In fact, he had to do his own rallying.

Finally, things not involving the horse's performances may clinch the pick for me. Bailey, here to ride Banks Hill, also rides Royal Gem. And Royal Gem is entered only after his connections put up a few thousand dollars to supplement him to the race. If the Frankel-trained Inesperado was doing so well, would he spend another client's money for the privilege of getting beat? Unlikely.

My play: Royal Gem is going to be my key in the trifectas on top and in the second hole, just in case. I'll use him with Century City, Johar, Inesperado, and Rock Opera.