02/12/2004 12:00AM

A script Hollywood wouldn't believe


ARCADIA, Calif. - When it came to running the accomplished turf filly Valentine Dancer in the $200,000 La Canada Stakes on the main track at Santa Anita this Saturday afternoon, Craig Lewis trotted out all the time-tested rationalizations.

She is training well. She is more mature. If she could win, her value as a broodmare would increase, and so on, until the trainer finally relented and surrendered to the obvious.

Valentine Dancer was foaled on Valentine's Day, four years ago. The La Canada Stakes, at 1 1/8 miles, is exclusively for 4-year-old fillies. This year the La Canada falls squarely on Valentine's Day.

"It's an omen," Lewis conceded. "The stars are aligned."

Tom Mankiewicz would agree. The veteran Hollywood screenwriter, producer, and director has spent his career spinning fabulous tales and turning them loose on the movie-going public. His credits include the original film version of "Superman" with Christopher Reeve, as well as such James Bond installments as "Diamonds Are Forever," "Live and Let Die," and "The Man With the Golden Gun."

When he heard the story of Valentine Dancer, and how she would be trying to win the La Canada on her Valentine's Day birthday, the storyteller in Mankiewicz responded with rueful appreciation.

"That's the way I'd write it," he said.

At the same time, the racehorse owner in Mankiewicz has a very different La Canada ending in mind. Victory Encounter, his high-flying daughter of Victory Speech, enters the race off a string of six straight main track wins dating back to the day he claimed her last April at Santa Anita.

Since then, Victory Encounter has hardly put a foot wrong. With trainer John Sadler directing her fortunes, the filly took the Torrey Pines Stakes last summer at Del Mar, then re-emerged as a 4-year-old to cruise home easily in the El Encino Stakes last month.

For Mankiewicz, a die-hard horseplayer, the experience with Victory Encounter has been the realization of a horse racing dream. When his filly hit the wire in the El Encino, he floated through the box seats in a giddy daze, accepting congratulations from the racetrack regulars who have known Mankiewicz for years, watching him pay his dues and put in his time.

"Eddie from Alhambra gave me a big hug," said Mankiewicz, referring to a clubhouse character who rarely bestows such an honor. "He said, 'You're a hell of a man, Mr. Moskowitz!' "

What's in a name, as long as you're a winner?

"I think the narcotic of racing, for the people who own horses, is that they can't control it," Mankiewicz said. "When the gate opens, you can have the best horse and lose, or the third best horse and win."

Sounds a little like making a movie, then releasing it to the whims of public taste.

"Absolutely," Mankiewicz said. "You never really know. When [director] Dick Donner and I flew off to England to make Superman, everyone thought it was stupid to make a movie out of a comic book. It had 'turkey' written all over it."

With $134 million at the box office, "Superman" was the most successful release of 1977.

Mankiewicz, 61, is hardly new to horses. He rode jumpers in his youth and owned pricey Arabs later on. He was infected with the Thoroughbred racing bug by his association with entertainment industry friends who were into the game.

Cubby Broccoli, the progenitor of the James Bond franchise, owned such top Thoroughbreds as Donstop Themusic and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Brocco. Robert Wagner, who was directed by Mankiewicz in episodes of the TV series "Hart to Hart," had runners with Ron McAnally. Record company owner Jerry Moss brought Mankiewicz into partnerships in a number of runners on the California circuit.

"I had my first horse in partnership with R.J. Wagner," Mankiewicz said. "It was a little filly named Loucoum. She was stabled right next to John Henry."

Mankiewicz found himself standing with McAnally in front of their stalls one day and decided to pose the question: If he didn't know who they were, which horse would he buy?

"You'd buy ours, right?" Mankiewicz said, leading the witness.

"Yes," replied McAnally. "But I'd be wrong."

Mankiewicz ended up with Victory Encounter because he lost a shake on a horse he and Sadler tried to claim for $16,000 earlier that same day.

"John told me he'd like to go after the filly for $32,000," Mankiewicz said. "It was more than I'd planned to spend, but I said okay. I didn't want to look cheap in front of my trainer.

"Sometimes the racing gods part the clouds, reach down, and touch you," he went on. "If I hadn't lost that shake I would not have ended up with Victory Encounter.

"It happens in the picture business, too," Mankiewicz added. "There will be little projects you're working on, just to be working, but they turn out wonderfully. About five years ago, R.J. Wagner told me he was working on the funniest movie. Just hysterical. And they were making it for only about $10 million."

The movie "Austin Powers."

"I've had my heart broken in racing more times than I've been pleasantly surprised," Mankiewicz said. "But everybody has. Victory Encounter has given me so much joy, everything she does from now on is gravy."