Spook Express Works For Matriarch; Trainer Makes Eclipse Pitch

From Hollywood Park
Spook Express, the probable favorite for the $500,000 Matriarch next Sunday, worked an easy half mile on the Hollywood Park turf course in :50.60 under regular rider Mike Smith.

Trainer Tom Skiffington hoped that a victory by the 7-year-old South African-bred mare would enhance her credentials for Eclipse Award consideration.

The last time the New York-based Skiffington shipped a horse to Hollywood Park, the 1997 Eclipse Award for grass female was to be decided in the grade I Matriarch. Skiffington sent out contender Maxzene, but she finished second to Ryafan, who won the Eclipse.

"I had no qualms with Ryafan winning the Eclipse," said Skiffington. "She came over and won three grade Is. I take my hat off to her."

Skiffington was more disappointed when Anka Germania did not win the Eclipse in 1987. "She won five or six graded stakes, including the Sword Dancer, beating males, including Sunshine Forever," said Skiffington. "But Miesque came over, won one race in the Breeders' Cup (Mile), and she won the award."

Skiffington then repeated the question that is one of the most difficult to answer in Eclipse Award balloting: how much weight should be given to a foreign horse winning one North American race - albeit the Breeders' Cup - against another horse or horses winning several important North American stakes to determine the North American champion?

That factor will have a huge impact in determining at least three championships this year, including grass female. French invader Banks Hill was an impressive winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf in her only North American start.

"Maybe the NTRA should do like NASCAR and award points to major races -- with Breeders' Cup races worth more points -- to determine the champion," mused Skiffington. "The fans would see the horses run more that way."

If the overall record during the year is more important, several Matriarch candidates remain in contention, including Spook Express. She has won 11 of 21 starts and earned more than $1-million. This year, she has recorded three firsts, one second and three thirds in seven starts for earnings of $788,870. Her victories were in the grade II Winstar Galaxy at Keeneland and the grade III Honey Fox and Suwanee River handicaps at Gulfstream.

"Spook Express lightened a little bit after the Breeders' Cup, but has put the weight back on," said Skiffington of the mare, which shipped west Monday. "She is very much like Maxzene in that both are strong closers. Spook Express is a little more one-dimensional in that she needs a large field and an honest pace in front of her. Maxzene could get into the race a little earlier and had a longer sustained run."

Skiffington, a former steeplechase rider, pointed out that one reason for the strong Matriarch field unfolding is that the Breeders' Cup was run the last weekend in October rather than the first weekend in November. "I would have never considered the Matriarch, but then I looked at my calendar and realized it was four weeks between races and not three, " said Skiffington.

Skiffington also brought Reduit and The Parting Glass from New York for grass races here. "The Parting Glass will probably run in an allowance race next week," said Skiffington. "I had hoped to run Reduit in the Hollywood Derby, but he may not have enough earnings to get in if more than 14 want to run. If not, I may look for an allowance race. I think Reduit is going to be my best horse. They may be doing me a favor not letting him run in the Derby."

Others working toward the Matriarch included Verruma and Freefourracing, first and third-place finishers, respectively, in the grade III Athenia Handicap on the Belmont Park turf Oct. 26.

Verruma, purchased ten days ago from the Keeneland November sale for $300,000 by trainer Jim Chapman and partner Stu Tsujimoto, worked six furlongs in 1:13 under Tyler Baze.

Freefourracing, who made her first start in a year in the Athenia, worked seven furlongs in 1:27.60 under Gary Stevens for trainer Neil Drysdale.

Drysdale also worked Crystal Music, a group I winner in Europe and unplaced in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, seven furlongs on turf in 1:28.80 with Chris McCarron. Drysdale, who recently took over training of the 3-year-old filly from John Gosden, said another work during the week would determine whether Crystal Music was entered in the Matriarch.

Starine, owned and trained by Bobby Frankel, worked five furlongs on turf Saturday in 1:02.60 for the Matriarch.

Defending champion Tout Charmant, a question mark to return, worked five furlongs on the main track at Santa Anita in 1:00.80 for trainer Ron McAnally.

Probable Matriarch starters include: Spook Express (Mike Smith), Janet (David Flores), Tranquility Lake (Eddie Delahoussaye), Golden Apples (Garrett Gomez), Starine (John Velasquez), Verruma (Baze), Freefourracing (Stevens), Starrer (Kent Desormeaux), Gino's Spirits (Victor Espinoza) and French imports Baldwina and Lethals Lady.