07/08/2004 11:00PM

Hard not to like Victory Encounter

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Santa Maria winner Star Parade is one of several who should show speed in the Milady Handicap on Sunday.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - has slowly worked her way to the top of California's female handicap division on dirt this year with wins in the El Encino Stakes and Vanity Handicap.

When she starts as the 119-pound topweight in Sunday's $250,000 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park, bettors will expect Victory Encounter to confirm her status as one of the West's top females.

Her trainer, John Sadler, is confident that Victory Encounter can duplicate her effort in the Grade 1 Vanity, when she rallied from fourth behind a quick pace to pull a 7-1 upset and win by 2 1/2 lengths.

"We know she's a gutty little thing," he said. "She's never lost on the main track here. There's a lot to like."

Owned by Tom Mankiewicz, who claimed her for $32,000 in April 2003 at Santa Anita, Victory Encounter has won 7 of 11 starts and $404,520.

In the Grade 1 Milady, run over 1 1/16 miles, Victory Encounter will start from the rail against six rivals, including Summer Wind Dancer, the winner of the Grade 3 Hawthorne Handicap on June 6, and Star Parade, who won the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita in February but was third in the Vanity.

Pesci, second in the Hawthorne, is expected to set the pace. Quero Quero, a stakes winner on turf, and Star Parade should be near the front.

Quero Quero won the Grade 2 Honeymoon Handicap on turf last year and has placed in two turf stakes at this meeting. Trainer Paulo Lobo admits that starting in the Milady is a gamble.

"She needs to improve on the dirt," Lobo said.

Lady Thatcher and Tangle also start and will be longshots. Tangle was third in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes on dirt against 4-year-olds at Santa Anita in February, her only appearance on dirt in eight starts.

"She ran well in the first time on dirt," trainer Craig Dollase said. "It's worth a chance. There really isn't a standout in the older filly dirt division."

Victory Encounter, unbeaten in three starts on this track, figures to stalk the front-runners. She did lead to the eighth pole of the one-mile Bed o' Roses Handicap at Aqueduct on April 17, but faded to finish fourth.

With the likelihood of a strong pace, the Milady should give Victory Encounter an opportunity for a third stakes win this year.