01/04/2009 12:00AM

Valbenny looks to be on the upswing

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Valbenny was not very good in 2008. She lost five starts and never got close until her final start of the season.

But things are looking up for the 5-year-old turf mare, whose improved effort last out and soft competition Sunday in the Grade 2 San Gorgonio Handicap at Santa Anita suggest she can start 2009 on a positive note.

"The horses that beat her last time, I think, were better than the horses she is running against Sunday," trainer Bobby Frankel said.

And he's right. Whereas one-two Las Palmas finishers Roshani and Rosinka are graded stakes winners, the San Gorgonio field includes only one graded stakes winner other than Valbenny - Meribel won a Grade 3 way back in 2006.

Eight fillies and mares entered the San Gorgonio, a 1 1/8-mile grass race that Frankel has won in seven of the last 13 years.

"I've been blessed with some good fillies over the years," Frankel said.

That does not include Valbenny, who has gone 18 months and eight races since her last win. "Yeah, but she tried her last two," Frankel said.

Valbenny rallied to fifth on Sept. 27 in the Yellow Ribbon, and was a close fourth in the Las Palmas before she was scratched from the Grade 2 Dahlia on Dec. 21.

"I thought this would be an easier race," Frankel explained.

Alex Solis rides Valbenny, purchased by Roy and Gretchen Jackson for $1.2 million at the end of a 2007 campaign in which she won two graded stakes and finished second in two Grade 1's. Frankel said she would race through the end of this year.

The racing or breeding future for likely second choice Marzelline depends on her performance Sunday. She finished fourth in the Yellow Ribbon two starts back, but was seventh of nine last out in the Grade 3 Long Island Handicap at Aqueduct. Trainer Ben Cecil still does not have an explanation for her performance that day.

"Whether it was the shipping, or the turf, or the mile and a half, I still don't know quite why," Cecil said. "I keep thinking she's more of a mile and a quarter filly, but she may be better at a mile and an eighth."

Cecil also starts High Heel Sneakers, who will race once more, then retire.

The field also includes improving filly Solar Miss, promising New Zealand mare Belmont Cat, likely pacesetter Tizfiz, and Green Lyons.