09/09/2004 11:00PM

Bettors have option to favorite


POMONA, Calif. - Victory Encounter ran so poorly in her last two starts that an objective handicapper might conclude the Grade 1 winner was finished. "She's not," trainer John Sadler assured. "There's nothing wrong with her. She's ready to go."

and jockey Martin Pedroza will try to prove it Sunday at Fairplex Park, where six fillies and mares race 1 1/16 miles in the $60,000 E.B. Johnston Stakes. Victory Encounter may be the class of the field, but her dubious current condition is reason to give razor-sharp Letra de Cambio a long look. The field includes Lucky in Love, Beaucette, Daisyago, and Shezsospiritual.

The Los Angeles County Fair is an unusual spot for a Grade 1 winner - Victory Encounter upset Adoration and Star Parade in May in the Vanity Handicap. But in two subsequent starts the 4-year-old filly dropped out of contention and finished in front of only one horse.

"When she drops so far out of it, she gets discouraged," Sadler said.

The switch to an aggressive rider such as Pedroza all but assures Victory Encounter will be positioned closer to the lead, and Sadler and owner Tom Mankiewicz hope the Sunday stakes is a springboard back into graded stakes. Although the Johnston is considered the prep for the $100,000 Las Madrinas Handicap at Fairplex on Sept. 24, Sadler said, "We want to get a confidence-builder then come back in the Lady's Secret at Oak Tree" on Oct. 3

The best effort by Victory Encounter would blow away her rivals Sunday. She has won seven races and $420,087 from 13 starts, and a bullet five-furlong workout eight days ago hints she is sharp. But afternoon race performances are more meaningful than morning workouts in assessing current form, and if bettors perceive Victory Encounter to be vulnerable at low odds, there is a sensible alternative.

Letra de Cambio did little in her first two U.S. starts, but as with many South American imports, her form gradually improved. In her most recent start Sept. 2, she finished a good second behind Elloluv in a minor stakes at Del Mar.

"She's okay coming back in 10 days," trainer A.C. Avila said, cautioning that if she wheels back in 12 days in the Las Madrinas "I don't think she'll be that sharp."

Letra de Cambio has won four races and $77,868 from 13 starts. A front-runner/presser, she should be positioned in front of Victory Encounter, and the Beyer Speed Figure of 93 that she earned last time should be good enough.