08/05/2005 12:00AM

Statebreds have been hot in graded races


The way that California-breds are performing in major stakes this summer, Tucked Away and Valentine Dancer deserve extra attention in Sunday's $300,000 Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar.

Tucked Away and Valentine Dancer are trying to win their first graded stakes and produce the latest in a string of impressive performances from statebreds.

After disappointing results in the winter and spring, top California-breds in general have been in excellent form this summer, scoring six graded stakes win since Lava Man won the Grade 2 Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park on June 18.

Since then, Lava Man has returned to win the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, Unfurl the Flag won the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap, Alphabet Kisses won the Grade 2 A Gleam Handicap, Leave Me Alone scored in the

Grade 3 Azalea Breeders' Cup Stakes, and Greg's Gold pulled an upset in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Handicap last Sunday at Del Mar.

Overall, 13 California-bred horses have won 14 graded stakes through Friday. Aside from appearances by Tucked Away and Valentine Dancer, this could be a big weekend for statebreds. Leave Me Alone was entered for Saturday's Grade 1 Test Stakes at Saratoga and Alphabet Kisses is a top contender in the Grade 2 Hirsch.

California-breds had a successful season last year, too, led by the 3-year-old fillies House of Fortune, Silent Sighs, and Yearly Report, all of whom won graded stakes.

Moscow Burning, the 2004 California-bred horse of the year, won the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park. Other graded stakes winners that season were Bear Fan, Dream of Summer, McCann's Mojave, and Summer Wind Dancer.

But this year, much of the success has come at the Grade 1 level. Aside from Greg's Gold, Lava Man, and Unfurl the Flag, Dream of Summer won the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in April.

Remarkably, the 13 graded stakes winners this year are by different stallions: Alphabet Soup, Benchmark, Bertrando, Bold Badgett, Boomerang, Candi's Gold, Illinois Storm, In Excess, Lake George, Mud Route, Siberian Summer, Slew City Slew, and Smokester.

The diversity is a benefit to the state as a whole, according to owner-breeder John Harris, who is also the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board.

"If you look at just the California-bred races, and you go by the Beyer [Speed Figures], they're pretty good heats," said Harris. "People say we don't have good stallions out here, but the proof is in the pudding that we do."

Both Tucked Away and Valentine Dancer are capable of pulling a surprise in the Hirsch, run over 1 1/16 miles.

Tucked Away, a 5-year-old by Unusual Heat who is owned by Nico Nierenberg, has placed in three consecutive stakes, including the Grade 3 Desert Stormer Handicap at Hollywood on June 5. Trainer Paddy Gallagher admits her presence in the Hirsch is a gamble.

"I would like to see if it could help her pedigree and make her a better broodmare prospect," Gallagher said. "She's won stakes but she's only graded stakes placed. Every little bit helps."

Valentine Dancer, who won the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf in January and the $150,000 Fran's Valentine Stakes for statebreds in April, has placed in three graded stakes this year. A 5-year-old by In Excess owned by Al and Sandee Kirkwood, Valentine Dancer was second to Alphabet Kisses in the A Gleam.