02/12/2004 12:00AM

Familiar rivals cross paths again


ARCADIA, Calif. - Five months after Victory Encounter and Valentine Dancer finished one-two in the Torrey Pines Stakes at Del Mar, they meet again in Saturday's $200,000 La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita. Since their first matchup, each filly's career has blossomed.

won the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes on Jan. 18 in her first start since the Torrey Pines.

In the Grade 2 La Canada over 1 1/8 miles, Victory Encounter and Valentine Dancer are opposed by six other 4-year-old fillies, all of whom have won or placed in stakes.

But the betting focus will be on Victory Encounter and Valentine Dancer.

Victory Encounter has won four consecutive races and six straight on dirt for Tom Mankiewicz and trainer John Sadler, who claimed her for $32,000 last April.

In the El Encino Stakes, Victory Encounter rallied from sixth under jockey Mike Smith to win by a length over Personal Legend. The El Encino Stakes marked Victory Encounter's second stakes win. In both races she rallied from off the pace, a change from last summer when she led or disputed the pace in allowance race wins at Hollywood Park and Del Mar.

"What surprised me is that her style has changed," Sadler said. "When we first started, she was up on the lead. I was quite nervous in her last race but Mike hasn't made any mistakes."

The La Canada will be the longest race in Victory Encounter's career.

"I think going a mile and an eighth she'll be strong, especially with a race under her belt," Sadler said.

Valentine Dancer has won recent stakes on turf and dirt - the Ramser Handicap and Sunshine Millions here on turf and the Cat's Cradle Handicap on dirt at Hollywood Park in December. The Sunshine Millions race was over 1 1/8 miles against California-breds and Florida-breds.

"She's versatile. She's probably better on turf but she's a nice filly on dirt," trainer Craig Lewis said. "She's learned to relax and we can place her where we want to put her. That's a big plus."

The other starters have not displayed the same recent form as Valentine Dancer and Victory Encounter.

Cat Fighter was third in the El Encino, her stakes debut. She is coupled with Atlantic Ocean, who is winless in her last eight starts, all stakes.