04/22/2005 12:00AM

Valentine Dancer stalks a milestone

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The success of Valentine Dancer over the last few years has so inspired trainer Craig Lewis that he named his somewhat goofy Labrador retriever Valentino.

But the filly's legacy is certain to be much greater than that. If Valentine Dancer wins Sunday's $150,000 Fran's Valentine Stakes at Hollywood Park, she will become only the fifth California-bred female to reach at least $1 million in career earnings. By year's end, Lewis and owners Al and Sandee Kirkwood are hoping that can reach the top of that list.

"I never thought she'd get to the lofty status of millionaire," Lewis said. "They have to stay together; everything has to go right."

Things have gone right enough for Valentine Dancer that she has won 7 of 21 starts and $918,126. She has won stakes at 3, 4, and this year at 5.

Valentine Dancer won her first stakes, the 2003 Harold Ramser Handicap at Oak Tree at Santa Anita, against open company. But the bulk of her earnings have come from restricted races, including the last two runnings of the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf for California-breds and Florida-breds.

The earnings from those wins have pushed her to the verge of the seven-figure mark and into elite company. Fran's Valentine, who earned $1,374,465 in a 34-race career in the mid-1980's, is the all-time leader in money earnings among California-bred fillies and mares. Other millionaire mares are Brown Bess, who won $1,300,920 and was the Eclipse champion turf female of 1989; Gourmet Girl, the winner of $1,255,373 and the champion older female of 2001; and Lazy Slusan, who made 47 starts and earned $1,150,410.

What makes Valentine Dancer's success all the more remarkable is the tender treatment she has sometimes required from Lewis and his staff. Minor setbacks, primarily ankle injuries, have forced two lengthy vacations - for six months after her debut in June 2002, and nearly nine months after she finished sixth in the 2004 Fran's Valentine Stakes.

"She's never had any surgery, but she's had some problems," Lewis said. "When they run as hard as she does, it's inevitable there'll be some consequences of going into battle.

"She's a big, heavy, powerful filly."

The mare's size has forced Lewis to alter the way she is trained. He sometimes takes a conservative approach.

"That's a fine balance there," he said. "You can overdo it. They can only take so much."

Optimism ran high early in Valentine Dancer's career. By In Excess out of the Mr. Prospector mare Gilded Dancer, Valentine Dancer had her most active season in 2003, when she made 14 starts as a 3-year-old. She began the season with a three-length win in a one-mile maiden race at Santa Anita in January and finished with a victory in the Cat's Cradle Handicap for statebreds at Hollywood Park in December. Her five-win campaign and earnings of $312,846 were enough to be named California-bred champion 3-year-old filly.

Valentine Dancer opened 2004 with a gritty win in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita, overcoming trouble in the stretch. She made two more starts, both losses, before being sidelined.

This year, Lewis battled poor weather to have Valentine Dancer ready for a defense of her Sunshine Millions title. After finishing second in the Paseana Handicap at a mile on dirt at Santa Anita on Jan. 14, Valentine Dancer was sent to Gulfstream Park for the Sunshine Millions. Sent off at 8-1, she rallied from third to win by a neck, holding off four other fillies and mares who finished within a length.

"I thought she had a shot, but I thought it would be tough on her to win," Lewis said. "We were coming back in 15 days. She handled everything like a pro."

Valentine Dancer ran a game race against open company in her most recent start, finishing third behind Megahertz in the Grade 2 Santa Ana Handicap on March 20.

The Fran's Valentine will mark Valentine Dancer's 14th consecutive appearance in a stakes. She must win to reach a million. A second would leave her $52,000 short.

Hitting a million in earnings would be a cherished milestone for Lewis and the Kirkwoods. The next goal would be Fran's Valentine's all-time mark.

"If we can keep her going," said Lewis, "it's a real likelihood."