05/26/2004 11:00PM

Mark of Diablo: Who knew?

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - There were three stakes races held over the Victoria Day weekend, and while most in attendance weren't surprised by the dominating performances of Lord Nelson in the Hong Kong Jockey Club Sprint and Regal Red in the Supernaturel, the 6 1/4-length romp by Mark of Diablo ($17.50) in the City of Vancouver Stakes on Monday caught many by surprise.

Mark of Diablo won his maiden at Hastings last July, and after taking the rest of the summer off, he joined trainer Peter Stephen on his annual trip to Sunland Park in New Mexico. Mark of Diablo started five times at Sunland Park, and after a couple of third-place finishes he won an entry-level allowance Feb. 17. He was thrown to the wolves in the Borderland Derby and never really got involved in the race, finishing 10th. It was a tough field, and the third-place finisher, Hi Teck Man, came back to win the $500,000 WinStar Derby.

"That race was a washout," said Stephen. "We wanted to see how he would handle going a distance, but he never really got to run. Everything that could go wrong could go wrong."

Stephen said he wasn't surprised Mark of Diablo won the City of Vancouver, but he wasn't expecting him to dominate the best of the local 3-year-olds while posting a very fast final time for 6 1/2 furlongs of 1:16.19.

"He ran 1:16 and change at Sunland Park, so we knew he could run," Stephen said. "And he had been training extremely well coming up to this race. He hardly blew at all when he came back from his six-furlong work the other day. He's a pretty nice little colt, but that was quite a performance."

Stephen was very pleased with the way Mark of Diablo came out of his race, but he wasn't sure where he would make his next start.

"I just finished walking him, and you would think he just galloped," Stephen said Tuesday morning. "He's a good doer, and he came out of his race just perfect."

Felipe Valdez was aboard and was impressed.

"Just wait till he goes long," Stephen said. "He'll be even better."

Fans applaud J V Bennett

As pleased as Stephen was with the performance of Mark of Diablo, he was visibly moved when he talked about J V Bennett. An 11-year-old gelding, J V Bennett won a $25,000 claiming race Monday, and the response from the fans in attendance was easily the loudest of the season. J V Bennett has started 93 times and has won 31 races, a fact not lost on the few who cashed a $44.40 mutuel.

"He's got quite a following now," Stephen said. "He's probably one of the classiest horses that has ever raced here. Not many horse win over 30 races, especially at this high of a level. I just love the horse, and he's a barn pet. He lets you know when he's ready to run, so I expected him to run a big race."

Victory puts Regal Red on pedestal

Ho-hum could be one way to describe the way Regal Red, with Frank Fuentes aboard, went about her business in winning her second straight stakes race over three other 3-year-old fillies in the Supernaturel Stakes on Monday. She never appeared to get out of a gallop while posting a 4 1/4-length decision over Socorro County in 1:17 for the 6 1/2 furlongs. Like Dancewithavixen last year, Regal Red appears to be in a class by herself locally.

Regal Red's trainer, Robbie Anderson, was considering either the Emerald Downs Handicap at Hastings on June 13 or the $50,000 Irish Day Handicap at Emerald Downs on the same day.

"It wouldn't hurt to take her down and see how she handles the ship and starting gate down there," he said. "We're obviously considering the Washington Oaks in August, so a trial run could be helpful."

Dancewithavixen impressive in defeat

It was hard not to notice the domination of Mark of Diablo, Regal Red, and Lord Nelson, but one of the best performances of the weekend was by Dancewithavixen, who finished third to colts and geldings in the Hong Kong Jockey Club Sprint on Sunday. With a track clearly favoring speed horses, Dancewithavixen, a 4-year-old filly, was one of the few horses on the day to actually pass horses, and she made an impressive move from mid-pack while going extremely wide around the stretch turn.

"We were very proud of her," said Tom Longstaff, who owns and trains Dancewithavixen. "But it will be nice to have her run against her own sex next time."

Longstaff is pointing Dancewithavixen towards the Brighouse Belles on June 19.