12/19/2008 12:00AM

Vacare rates top billing but is no lock


PHOENIX - Sunday's Grade 2 Dahlia Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the turf at Hollywood is timed perfectly for those female runners looking to be the proverbial mouse while the cat's away.

In just the past couple of months, we have had the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon, the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and Grade 1 Matriarch. In other words, the big girls have had their say, and now they're likely off to breeding shed, taking a well-earned vacation, or eyeballing the upcoming big events at Santa Anita and Gulfstream. The Dahlia is a great opportunity for those fillies and mares who can't match up with them.

There's little doubt Vacare is the horse to beat. She is a Grade 1 winner, having taken the Queen Elizabeth II at Keeneland in 2006. While unable to duplicate that success since, she has still managed two Grade 2 wins and most recently was second in the Yellow Ribbon and a close fifth (beaten just two lengths) in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Both were at 1 1/4 miles, which conventional wisdom seemed to say was too far for her, but she handled the distance well.

She is presented with no such hurdles Sunday, both in terms of distance and competition. Still, this is no slam dunk, and she's going to be well backed, so maybe now is the time to take a shot against her.

When Valbenny came here from England in 2006 she made an immediate splash. She won four of her first five U.S. starts, including the Grade 3 Miesque (at Hollywood), Grade 3 Senorita (Hollywood) and Grade 2 Honeymoon (Hollywood). In fact, she is 3 for 4 on that course, the one loss coming when she ran second in the Grade 1 American Oaks at 10 furlongs, which may be a bit out of her range, at least at the Grade 1 level.

Distance is no worry for her in the Dahlia. And after some modest form this spring and summer she perked up in the Grade 2 Las Palmas at Oak Tree at Santa Anita in her last start Oct. 24. That day, going a mile, she was far back early and finished full of run to be fourth, beaten just 1 1/4 lengths. That was her best outing in some time and hinted she may well be back on track for trainer Bobby Frankel on a course she thinks she owns.

Malibu a starting point

It may not precisely match the calendar, but there's little doubt that the new racing year starts the day after Christmas with the opening of Santa Anita, and the cherry on the cake is the Grade 1 Malibu. This year figures no different. Sure, there's no Big Brown in the field, and some have thumbed their nose at this year's 3-year-old crop, but the Malibu is often a stepping-off point for 3-year-olds who must subsequently face older horses.

This year's group looks promising. Georgie Boy has shown he can knock heads with the big boys. And there's Into Mischief. He won the 2007 Grade 1 CashCall Futurity and looked like a major Derby player, but injury knocked him to the bench. He came back with a dazzling win in a stakes on the Breeders' Cup undercard to show he's back and feeling good as ever. Sadly, he is expected to be sent off to stud after this race.

But there's little doubt whose name will be at the top of the marquee. Colonel John, the West's best in 2008 and who validated his form with a game win in the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga in August, was originally penciled in for the longer San Fernando and Strub stakes, legs two and three of the Strub Series. But he has been working in such marvelous fashion that trainer Eoin Harty reports the Malibu is indeed his target. And for those who say he needs longer remember this - he romped to win his maiden going seven furlongs in his second career start.