08/20/2003 11:00PM

Lewis could use lift from 'Valentine'

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Valentine Dancer can jump-start the Del Mar meet for trainer Craig Lewis when she starts in Saturday's $75,000 Barona Cup Handicap.

Last year, Lewis finished in a tie for fifth in the trainers' standings with eight winners. This meet through Wednesday, he had just one victory from 25 starters.

"Nothing has been going our way this meet," Lewis said. "That's the way it goes. It will turn for us. We can't give up. We're just temporarily derailed."

Valentine Dancer, owned by Al and Sandee Kirkwood, has the credentials to win the Barona Cup, run at one mile on turf. Valentine Dancer finished third in the Flawlessly Stakes at Hollywood Park last month and finished sixth in the Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap on this turf course Aug. 2.

In the Flawlessly, Valentine Dancer rallied in traffic to finish only 1 3/4 lengths behind the winner, Just Too Too. "She didn't have the best of trips in the Flawlessy," Lewis said.

In the San Clemente, Valentine Dancer fought for the lead to early stretch and finished 4 1/2 lengths behind the winning Katdogawn.

"Hopefully the race over the course will help," Lewis said. "She ran about as we expected."

With Katdogawn starting in Sunday's $300,000 Del Mar Oaks, Valentine Dancer will face an easier field in the Barona Cup. Valentine Dancer is well suited to the distance, having won allowance races at 1 1/16 miles on turf at Hollywood Park in the spring.

Because of common ownership, Valentine Dancer and Vanilla Sky will start as an entry against five other opponents in the Barona Cup. Vanilla Sky finished third in an optional claiming race earlier this meet.

The competition includes Woodlass, a European import, and No Kings, the winner of a one-mile optional claiming race on turf on July 16.

Lewis is hoping for better success in the final 2 1/2 weeks of the Del Mar meet, but admits his barn has been hit with injuries.

"We've got some starters, but I wouldn't say it looks real strong," Lewis said. "You hate to lose a live horse down here. A lot of money and hard work goes into getting them ready."

Holding down the Frankel fort

For most of the past four months, and practically all of the past two months, trainer Bobby Frankel has been in New York, overseeing his star-studded stable there. He still has a presence in California, though, with a large number of horses being overseen by long-time assistant Humberto Ascanio, who has been entrusted with the final preparation of Medaglia d'Oro and Milwaukee Brew for Sunday's Pacific Classic.

It is a testament to Frankel's trust in Ascanio, and their relationship, that he can send two Grade 1 stakes winners across the country for a major race, and not arrive until the day of the race. Those two horses did most of their serious training at Saratoga before heading west, but Ascanio and Frankel have worked with one another for so long now that Ascanio can pretty much anticipate what Frankel wants done.

"We talk every day," Ascanio said. "Sometime it's tough, because Bobby can be short on the phone, but I know what he wants to do. Sometimes we don't agree. He could be wrong. I could be wrong."

Regardless, they usually get it right in the end. Frankel has been the nation's Eclipse Award-winning trainer the past three years, and is the front-runner this year, too. At the 2002 Eclipse Award ceremonies held earlier this year in Los Angeles, Frankel brought several of his assistants to the stage, including Ascanio, and said he could not race at the high level he does without them.

"It's nice coming in to work in the morning and seeing all these nice horses," Ascanio said. "Every stall has a nice horse. How can you complain?"

Ascanio, 56, has worked with Frankel since 1972, when Frankel first came west from New York. At first, their barn consisted largely of claimers, many of whom Frankel developed into stakes-class runners. In the 1980's, Frankel began to slowly upgrade the quality of his stock, and in the past decade, Frankel's stable has become, division-for-division, the most powerful in the nation.

During that transitory period, from claimers to stakes horses, Ascanio also had a handful of horses he trained on the side under his own name, including the stakes-winning turf sprinter Caballo de Oro. But, he has worked exclusively for Frankel for practically all of those 31 years.

They admire each other. Last weekend, Frankel sent Ascanio to Arlington Park, where he saddled Heat Haze to victory in the Beverly D. Stakes, while Frankel remained in Saratoga. And Ascanio says of Frankel, "He's a good horseman. He's got a good eye. There's no question about it."

Sunday's pick six a guaranteed $1 million

Sunday's Pacific Classic program begins at 12:30 p.m. and will include a $1 million guaranteed pick six pool. The pick six begins on race 6 and runs through the final race, race 11

The Pacific Classic is the fifth race. The ninth race is the $300,000 Del Mar Oaks at 1 1/8 miles on turf, which has drawn eight entrants. Katdogawn and Star Vega are coupled as are Dessert and Atlantic Ocean.

The other entrants are Cassis, Personal Legend, Solar Echo, and Well Done My Love. Cassis and Well Done My Love are recent imports from Europe.

* Jockey Victor Espinoza has been given a three-day suspension for his ride aboard Denied in Monday's seventh race. Denied was disqualified from first to second for causing interference in the stretch of a one-mile turf race for optional claimers.

Espinoza's suspension begins Monday and continues through Thursday.

He did not ride Thursday, citing illness.

* Jockey Octavio Vergara, 46, announced earlier this week that he intends to relocate to Macau and will begin riding there in the near future.

Vergara, who has ridden in New York and California in recent years, has won more than 1,000 races in his career.

* Clockers have revised the workout time given to Taste of Paradise on Wednesday. The winner of the San Diego Handicap on Aug. 3, Taste of Paradise was originally given a time of 1:00.20. On Thursday, the time was amended to 58.40 seconds.

Trained by John Sadler, Taste of Paradise is being pointed for the $250,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap at one mile on Sept. 1.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman