04/21/2004 11:00PM

Dancewithavixen still the best

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Dancewithavixen dominated last year's 3-year-old filly crop at Hastings, and if the opening day Strawberry Morn Stakes was any indication, she will be even tougher to beat at 4.

Only three horses showed up to face Dancewithavixen in the Strawberry Morn, and while Shelby Madison and Dee's Love battled for the lead for the first half-mile, it was pretty clear that Dancewithavixen, who is owned and trained by Tom Longstaff, was going to be the winner. Felipe Valdez, who won seven stakes aboard Dancewithavixen last year, had her sitting a couple of lengths off the leaders and he appeared to have a handful of horse.

"She's just tremendous," he said. "I felt like I had a lot of horse the whole way and Tom obviously had her ready for a big effort."

Longstaff was obviously pleased with the race and is contemplating where he will run her next. Dancewithavixen could show up in the Sun Handicap next Saturday or possibly at Emerald Downs in the Hastings Park Handicap on May 9.

"We'll see," he said. "The Sun comes up pretty quick but she came out of the race better than she went in, so I'm leaning in that direction. She just loves it here and that makes it tough to leave home. I know weight is going to become a problem, but what are you going to do?"

Longstaff dedicated the win to his longtime friend, trainer Terry Marshall, who died at 60 in a northern California hospital last Saturday.

"We're going to miss 'the genius,' " said Longstaff, referring to Marshall's backstretch nickname. "He was a great friend and a very good trainer who could really pick one out."

One of the horses Marshall picked out was Full Scream Ahead, whom he claimed for $25,000. Under Marshall's care she won three stakes and finished second to another Marshall-trained horse, Grace for You, in the 2002 Grade 3 Ballerina at Hastings.

Gate malfunction affects 'Shelby'

A mishap at the starting gate prior to the Strawberry Morn didn't bother Dancewithavixen but it probably had a negative effect on last year's older filly and mare champ Shelby Madison, who finished third.

When head starter Al McFee pushed the button to open the gates, the bell went off but the gates didn't open. Shelby Madison appeared to be the only horse that lunged forward at the bell and she crashed head first into the closed gate. Her rider, Pedro Alvarado, also appeared to be stunned. All the horses were backed out to make sure the gates were properly functioning and that the horses and Alvarado were okay.

"It's too bad the gates didn't open the first time," said Mark Cloutier, assistant trainer to his wife, Toni. "Shelby probably would have had a two-length head start. She seems fine physically but she seems a bit rattled and we haven't galloped her back yet. We've nominated her to the Sun but I doubt if we'll run her back unless it comes up with a real short and weak field. We'll just wait and stretch her out."

Last year, Shelby Madison ran only in middle-distance races, and Cloutier said that the last time she went 6 1/2 furlongs, as a 3-year-old, she also came back a bit unsettled.

Opening weekend figures up

Phil Heard, Hastings's general manager, was very pleased with the opening weekend numbers, particularly since the Dalai Lama appeared Sunday at the Pacific Coliseum, which is adjacent to the track and shares parking spaces with Hastings.

"We broke even Saturday and I'm sure we would have done better with fuller fields," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised that we were up over 5 percent Sunday. I thought that competing with over 15,000 people next door that we would take a beating Sunday."