03/01/2007 12:00AM

Top mares leave bright lights for bluegrass

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Valentine Dancer was retired in early 2006 as one of the greatest California-bred racemares in history. She earned more than $1.1 million and won lucrative stakes at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita.

When her owner-breeders, Al and Sandee Kirkwood, sat down to decide a mating, one thing did not enter their minds - leaving Valentine Dancer in California.

Valentine Dancer, 7, had outgrown her roots. She was sent to Kentucky and bred to the top stallion Storm Cat. The foal is due on March 16.

"We didn't feel there was a California stallion that was a good cross for her," Sandee Kirkwood said recently. "That's why we chose Kentucky. We pretty well exhausted California as far as breeding goes."

The Kirkwoods are just one of many owners who are sending stakes-winning California mares out of state to be bred. Although California farms stand several notable stallions, such as In Excess, Benchmark, Bertrando, and Swiss Yodeler, they do not have the kind of stallions that can keep the state's best mares at home.

Put another way, the most successful and attractive girls are leaving Hollywood for Kentucky, and their owners do not have plans to bring them back.

This year, other top California-bred mares will be bred to the major Kentucky stallions A.P. Indy, Bernardini, Empire Maker, Giant's Causeway, and Ghostzapper.

Leave Me Alone, the winner of the Grade 1 Test Stakes in 2005, was bred to A.P. Indy last week. Later this year, Proposed, the winner of the Grade 2 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap in 2006, and Silent Sighs, the winner of the 2004 Santa Anita Oaks, will also be bred to A.P. Indy.

Alphabet Kisses, the winner of the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes in 2004, and the multiple stakes winner House of Fortune will be bred to the first-year stallion Bernardini.

Last year, Golden Eagle Farm bred the stakes winner Western Hemisphere to Unbridled's Song and has booked her to First Samurai this year. Also last year, the Grade 1 winner Dream of Summer was bred to Forestry, and will be bred later this year to a Kentucky stallion. The stakes-winning turf sprinter Cambiocorsa is going to Ghostzapper, and the 2006 stakes winner She's an Eleven will be bred to Empire Maker.

There is little that can be done to reverse the trend of top mares leaving the state, breeders say. Doug Burge, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, said it is simply a case of breeding the mares to the nation's leading stallions.

"These mares are extremely valuable from a commercial standpoint and justify being bred to the top stallions in the country," said Burge. "It's not anything unusual.

"Unfortunately, we're in the same situation as every other racing state outside of Kentucky. You're looking at playing at an international level and not a regional level."

Those hoping to race homebreds say breeding a top Cal-bred mare to a Kentucky sire gives the offspring a better chance of racing at the highest levels than keeping the mare in-state.

"We're breeding to race," Sandee Kirkwood said.

Valentine Dancer "was our home run," she added. "We'd like to win some of the bigger 3-year-old races and a Breeders' Cup."

Kentucky stallions were the best decision for Proposed and Silent Sighs, said Russell Drake, the farm manager at River Edge Farm in Buellton, Calif. Marty and Pam Wygod own the mares and River Edge.

"We felt they deserved a better shot of coming up with something special," Drake said. "They're both pretty nice mares. We might be a little bit over-breeding, but they were decent racehorses and are beautiful mares with great conformation."

Those breeding to sell say that breeding a mare who is proven on the track to a California sire, rather than a Kentucky sire, results in less-valuable offspring.

Leave Me Alone, for example, may be sold in foal to A.P. Indy at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale later this year, according to trainer Eric Kruljac. He advised owner Steve Mitchell on breeding plans for the 5-year-old Leave Me Alone, and said California stallions were not considered.

"There is so much more of a commercial market in case we try to sell in November, or if we sell the foals along the way," he said. "At least in the near future she'll stay in Kentucky.

"I think In Excess is a wonderful sire. Benchmark has done well, and Cee's Tizzy has had some marvelous horses. But from a market standpoint, if you want the option of selling in foal, if they're not by a Kentucky sire, you won't get that kind of money."

The California-bred Summer Wind Dancer, the winner of the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap in 2004, was sold in foal to Unbridled's Song at the 2005 Keeneland November breeding stock sale to Roy and Gretchen Jackson for $650,000. At the same sale, Golden Eagle sold Yearly Report, the winner of the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks in 2004, for $825,000 to B. Wayne Hughes. Yearly Report was in foal to Gone West at the time.

California breeders say the state does not have a stallion that can attract the state's best mares - nor is it capable of supporting such a stallion. Currently, the most expensive stallion in the state is In Excess, who is offered privately at a fee of up to $25,000. Swiss Yodeler, whose progeny topped California's 2006 general list, has a $10,000 stud fee.

"If you stood a horse here for $50,000 to $100,000, I don't know if you could get enough mares to him," said Drake of River Edge Farm. "There are enough people that are good breeders in California to support a good stallion, but would they do it for three or four years? You've got to put a lot of good mares to him for a number of years."

Drake said some of the Wygod-owned Kentucky-based mares have been sent to California this year to be bred to Benchmark at River Edge. They include mares by Deputy Minister, Gone West, Kris S., Pine Bluff, Storm Cat, and Tale of the Cat.

For some mares, a trip to Kentucky is not a one-way ticket.

Super High, a six-time stakes winner, has a yearling California-bred filly by the Kentucky-based stallion Victory Gallop and is in foal to Unusual Heat, one of California's top stallions. Because Super High foaled the Victory Gallop filly in California and was bred back to a California-based stallion in 2006, the Victory Gallop filly can be registered as a California-bred.

Super High is owned by breeder John Harris, who said he prefers to have the mares he sends to be bred in Kentucky foal in California.

Alphabet Kisses is an exception to Harris's philosophy. She is due to produce a foal by Awesome Again in April and will be bred back to Bernardini.

"We'll bring her back to California sometime," Harris said.

With top-class mares leaving the state, farm managers have had to campaign more vigorously to draw quality mares to their stallions. One top mare who is staying home is Romantic Fibs, the dam of Romance Is Diane, who won the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet in December. Romantic Fibs is boarded at Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, Calif., and she is expected to deliver a Bertrando foal this spring and will be bred back to In Excess.

"She could have easily gone to Kentucky," said Tom Hudson, the Magali farm manager. "We've got to have good mares for our stallions or we're not going to make it."