11/06/2003 12:00AM

Distance suits Shalini, but is she too rusty?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The $100,000 Distance Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on turf, the longest stakes for fillies and mares on the California Cup program, produced the closest finish last year when Nicole's Pursuit caught Shalini to win by a nose.

Saturday, Shalini returns in the Distance Handicap, and the trainer who denied her a victory is back with top contender Valentine Dancer.

Both Shalini and Valentine Dancer have questions surrounding their chances.

Valentine Dancer, trained by Craig Lewis for Al and Sandee Kirkwood, has not run beyond 1 1/16 miles on turf. A 3-year-old, she beat 11 other 3-year-old fillies in the Harold Ramser Handicap at a mile on Oct. 12.

Shalini has the stamina to win, a point proven by the heartbreaking loss at 9-1 last year for owners Jim and Richard Briere and trainer Craig Dollase. But Shalini, 4, does not have a recent start.

In her last race, Shalini scored a two-length win in the Valkyr Stakes for California-bred fillies and mares at Hollywood Park on July 19. The race marked the conclusion of a successful campaign at that meeting, which included a win in the Fran's Valentine Stakes in April, a third against open company in an allowance race in May, and a runner-up finish to Continental Red in the Quicken Tree Stakes against males at 1 1/2 miles on turf in June.

Dollase is not concerned about the layoff. He has given Shalini two six-furlong workouts in recent weeks and is quick to point out that she won the Pro or Con Handicap off a layoff last January.

"She runs well fresh," Dollase said. "I don't think the distance will bother her. I don't know of too many that can go that far and we know she can. She doesn't have any distance limitations."

Shalini and Valentine Dancer will dominate the betting against 10 other fillies and mares, a group that includes the multiple stakes winner Amber Hills and promising allowance-class runners Ardum Relaunch and Sweet Frippery.

Amber Hills has raced throughout the state for owners Curt and Lila Lanning, winning 3 of 10 starts. All three wins have come in stakes - the California Oaks at Golden Gate Fields, the Bay Meadows Oaks, and the CTBA Marian Stakes at Fairplex Park. The Distance Handicap will be her first start beyond 1 1/16 miles.

The distance will also be a test for Ardum Relaunch and Sweet Frippery, two late closers.

Valentine Dancer is making her sixth consecutive start in a stakes, a span that includes runner-up finishes in the Barona Cup and Torrey Pines Stakes at Del Mar and a third in the Flawlessly Stakes at Hollywood Park.

The Torrey Pines Stakes was run on the main track, indicating that Valentine Dancer can handle dirt if wet weather forces the Distance Handicap off the turf.

Lewis insists that Valentine Dancer has the fitness to go 1 1/4 miles. The Distance Handicap will be her 13th start of a campaign that already has resulted in earnings of $237,666.

"The question is a mile and a quarter," Lewis said. "There is a big difference between a mile and a mile and a quarter. She's definitely fit. It's a question of if she can do it. She stayed in good form and is a tough filly."

He is also aware that he could be the spoiler for the Brieres and Dollase for the second consecutive year.

"I'm familiar with Shalini," Lewis said. "I was on the right end of a photo with Nicole's Pursuit against Shalini in this race last year."