From the Print Edition: Tragedy in the Matriarch

From the Print Edition: Tragedy in the Matriarch
Photo: AP/Benoit
Denon's victory in the Hollywood Derby provided Bobby Frankel with his 16th grade I win of the year.
Published in the Dec. 1 issue of The Blood-Horse
There were no fractures, deep wounds, or even sore muscles. As concerned peers drifted in and out of the Hollywood Park jockeys' room following the tragic conclusion of the $500,000 Matriarch Stakes (gr. IT) on Nov. 25, Mike Smith admitted to having a single pain.

"Just a broken heart."

It happened in a flash, as it usually does. An outstanding cast of turf distaffers, a dozen of the best the world could offer, left the gate for one of the most competitive Matriarchs in years. One of them, a champion to many and a ray of light to those nearest her, never made it back.

The death of South African champion Spook Express cast a pall over the final afternoon of Hollywood's annual grass extravaganza, the $2.1-million Autumn Turf Festival. It also overshadowed a supreme performance put forth by Bobby Frankel's Starine, who simply ran away from Golden Apples, Janet, and others in the 1 1/8-mile Matriarch.

No, Starine's Matriarch wasn't as devastating as her Diana Handicap (gr. IIT) blowout at Saratoga. Some will even argue the sodden Hollywood turf hindered some of her competition. But this was definitely not the same Starine who lost her cool in the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) and turned in a race that was too bad to be true.

"She was a little too keen the other day, and I thought the soft turf would help her," Frankel admitted afterward. "Horses that pull, usually when they get on softer turf, relax a little better."

Both Frankel and jockey John Velazquez acknowledged the key to Starine's success is keeping her quiet early. In the Matriarch, Velazquez knew she came to play the moment the doors flew open. Despite leaving from post 10, the 4-year-old daughter of Mendocino found herself just outside and behind the front-running Crystal Music heading into the clubhouse turn. From there, she merely shadowed the leader through splits of :25.68, :50.66, and 1:14.54 before taking control turning for home. Lethals Lady and Golden Apples both fired strong rallies in midstretch, but neither posed a major threat. Starine powered past the finish 2 1/2 lengths clear, stopping the clock in a respectable 1:50.16. Lethals Lady held off Golden Apples by a neck for second.

And then it happened.

"She just hit a loose spot, just put it down wrong, you know. It just went," Smith sighed back in the jockeys' room. "She was trying so hard. You know how she struggles over the soft ground. Good thing that she stayed up for at least one jump so that everybody could pass me."

Trying in vain to make up ground down the stretch, Janice and Robert Aron's Spook Express took a bad step approaching the wire, tumbling hard and pitching Smith to the turf. The rider rolled but got up instantly, escaping the accident unscathed. Unfortunately, the Tom Skiffington-trained Spook Express was not as lucky. The 7-year-old mare never regained her feet, her injured left foreleg keeping her prone near the finish line. The damage--a complete compound luxation of the fetlock joint--was beyond repair. She was euthanized shortly thereafter.

Frankel has been admittedly surprised with Starine's ascent to the top levels of the game. Plans call for a brief respite through the wintertime and a return to action next spring.

"I couldn't ask for a better trip, really," Velazquez said, adding that the Matriarch stacked up quite nicely with Starine's romp in the Diana three months ago. "The only difference is that she was closer today. The important thing with her is if she's relaxed. It doesn't matter if she's back there or she's in front. She handled it, she settled the first part, and she finished awesome."

Denon and On

If Chris McCarron is feeling dejected following the recent retirement of Tiznow, he's hiding it quite well. He admits he'd love to throw a leg over the colt's broad back just one more time (who wouldn't?), but he's not wallowing in misery. Yes, that's him out there six mornings a week, scouring the backstretch and breezing horses, trying to unearth the game's next star.

He may have already found one. The name is Denon, and just over an hour after Starine gave Frankel his fourth Matriarch triumph, the 3-year-old Pleasant Colony colt made the most of his U.S. debut, outrunning Sligo Bay by a length in the $500,000 Hollywood Derby (gr. IT).

Owned jointly by Flaxman Holdings and Edmund Gann, Denon represented the strength of Frankel's three-pronged Derby entry. Staying quiet along the fence early, Denon went after Western Pride and Sligo Bay on the far turn. Sligo Bay, a Sadler's Wells colt trained by Beau Greely, stayed strong down the lane. But when McCarron finally got Denon lined out near the sixteenth pole, it was no contest. Denon was under the wire in 1:49.28. Aldebaran, another of Frankel's runners, finished third.

Back in the jocks' room, McCarron had little trouble extolling Denon's achievements--or warning against getting too high too soon.

"He's got good form," he began. "He ran in tough company in France competitively. He came over here, won a $500,000 race today, beat some decent colts. There's every reason for me to believe he could be the next big horse. But I've learned over the years that I would much rather be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed, so I try not to get too overly excited over one race."

Denon gave Frankel his 16th grade I victory--and 47th stakes win--of 2001. Interestingly enough, he also became McCarron's first Hollywood Derby winner.


Dollase Duo

"I don't know; this rain might have been OK, huh?" said trainer Wally Dollase. "I was worried about it."

With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Dollase strode into Barn 52 South still aglow over Good Journey's gutsy effort in the $500,000 Citation Handicap (gr. IIT) at 1 1/16 miles. Not even a day-long deluge could diminish Dollase's hopes for the compact son of Nureyev. Owned by a partnership including Dollase and his wife, Cincy, and the colt's breeder, Flaxman Holdings, Good Journey has been a work-in-progress from the moment he walked into Dollase's barn. Blame bad feet for his infrequent appearances. But when he does show up, sit back and enjoy the show.

"The thing about this guy is the tremendous kick he has," Dollase said. "Some of his races are awesome. By that I mean the last quarter-mile was impressive. He was passing horses like they were standing still. A three-eighths of a mile run and he'll give you a hell of a thrill."

Everybody finally noticed in the Citation. While stablemate I've Decided set the early pace, Good Journey lingered along the rail in fifth, began an outside advance rounding the far turn, then locked horns with Decarchy turning for home. It was a full-blown war through the stretch, with Good Journey ultimately pulling clear by a half-length. Decarchy, riding a three-race win streak for Frankel, lost nothing in defeat.

"He's got a beautiful head, doesn't he? And he's really a pleasure to be around," Dollase said back at the barn as he looked in on his latest star. "A typical Nureyev. Not too big, and he's strong. This horse has got a wonderful mind. He's just a very lackadaisical, comme çi, comme ça horse, you know. This guy, he's got it all."

Now he's really starting to show it.

Good Journey's breakout victory put the icing on a memorable two-day run for Team Dollase.

Continued...

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