Instead of clarifying the Eclipse Award picture for best female on grass, the Matriarch left it a kaleidoscope when Countus In, a longshot traveler from Kentucky, won the $200,000 stake by a neck on Sunday at Hollywood Park.
Plenty of Grace, winner of the Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita, might have clinched an Eclipse with a victory in the Matriarch, but at 3-1 she was unsuccessful in circling the field on the turn for home and wound up fifth.
Petite Ile, another Eclipse candidate who beat males twice earlier in the year, ran second to Plenty of Grace in the Yellow Ribbon and then skipped the Matriarch for a 12th-place finish in the Japan Cup a week ago.
With a 14-horse field--the biggest in its 10-year history--and no clear-cut favorite, the Matriarch seemed ripe for an upset, and Countus In was the surprise horse. The 5-year-old mare, ridden for the first time by Corey Nakatani and trained by Steven Rieser, ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 1/5, a stakes record, and earned $110,000 for her owner, Charles G. Middleton III, who is a Louisville attorney. In a designation which indicates that the track handicapper thought little of her chances, Countus In was made part of the parimutuel field, along with Vijaya, who ran last. Countus In paid $28.40 to win.
Taffeta and Tulle, a French filly making her American debut, finished second, a head in front of Little Brianne, who was two lengths better than Stylish Star in fourth place. Taffeta and Tulle and Royal Touch, the eighth-place finisher, were coupled in the betting and went off the 19-10 favorites before 21,498.
When Rieser returns to Churchill Downs and is asked how he won the Matriarch, he can say he benefited from sound advice. Rieser’s father, Stanley, a veteran Kentucky trainer, suggested to his son that he send the horse to California, and Hollywood Park trainer Willard Proctor, an old friend of the family, lined up Nakatani to ride the mare.
Before shipping, Rieser’s plan was to run Countus In in an allowance race at Hollywood, but Eual Wyatt, the track’s racing secretary, told him that because of her record--a stakes winner with $277,000 in earnings--the mare wouldn’t be eligible for any races the rest of the meeting.
When Rieser proposed running in the Matriarch, Wyatt told him that she might not be able to start because the race, with a 14-horse limit, could be oversubscribed. As it turned out, 16 horses were entered, but Countus In qualified to start because of an earnings rule.
Middleton bought Countus In’s dam, Cloudy and Warm, for $25,000 while she was in foal to Dancing Count. The Matriarch was the first major victory for Rieser, 37, who trained horses with his father and has had his own license for about 15 years.
Countus In, who broke her maiden at Ellis Park, a small track on the Kentucky-Indiana border, has had a history of physical problems. The Matriarch was only the 21st start of her career and her sixth appearance this year. The stable’s goal was to win the National Ladies at Pimlico, which she did in September, but in her last race, at Churchill Downs on Nov. 18, Countus In finished fifth. The Matriarch was her ninth victory.
“This mare has always been a lot gamer than she’s been given credit for,” Rieser said. “I’m glad she won this race to show that.”
Before the Matriarch, however, Rieser talked like a trainer who would have been satisfied with just a piece of the purse. “If we make the board, I’ll be thrilled,” he said.
One advantage to coming to California was the assurance that the turf course would be firm. “The three worst races this mare’s ever run were over soft courses,” Rieser said.
Little Brianne took the early lead, surrendered it to Miss Josh for the run down the backstretch, then regained the front on the turn for home. Jack Van Berg, Little Brianne’s trainer, said her jockey, Julio Garcia, moved to the lead too soon.
Countus In, after tracking Miss Josh and Little Brianne in third place most of the way, felt Nakatani’s whip coming out of the far turn. She seemed to be hanging at the eighth pole, but when Taffeta and Tulle, who had been far back early, came alongside, Countus In woke up.
“My mare was lugging in a bit,” Nakatani said, “but the horse ahead of me (Little Brianne) was lugging in, too. My horse spurted when she had to.”
Nakatani, 20, hadn’t won a major race until he started riding Itsallgreektome this year. “My biggest thrill is still the Breeders’ Cup (Mile) with The Greek,” he said. “We only got second, but we came very close to winning against some very good horses.”
Nakatani will be happy to know that Countus In will remain in California to see if she can beat turf females of this caliber again. She’s a Christmas present that the jockey hadn’t figured on.
Horse Racing Notes
Trainer Ian Jory is planning to run Best Pal in next Sunday’s $1-million Hollywood Futurity, and would like Pat Valenzuela to continue riding the gelding. Valenzuela, however, has been suspended indefinitely by the stewards for missing a day of riding in November and not satisfactorily submitting to a drug test. “From our end, I would doubt very much that Pat would be able to ride in the race, unless he went to court,” said Pete Pedersen, one of the Hollywood Park stewards. “There has to be a hearing before we can consider letting him ride again, and none is scheduled.”