Under a patient ride from substitute jockey Jon Court, Valentine Dancer split horses at the head of the stretch and stormed to a three-quarters of a length victory in the $500,000 John Deere Filly and Mare Turf on Sunshine Millions Day Saturday on the Santa Anita turf course.
Trained by Craig Lewis for owner/breeders Al and Sandee Kirkwood of Washington, the California-bred In Excess filly broke from the rail and stalked the early pace set by Atlantic Ocean and All The Honor while running on the inside.
"It was a beautiful trip," Lewis said. "Jon Court rode her as good as a horse could be ridden ... fabulous ride. It all worked out for us. We got the trip we anticipated, it went our way and it's in the history books."
As the field turned for home, Court guided her through a gap between those two at the top of the lane and emerged with the lead in mid-stretch. Valentine Dancer inched clear under left-handed urging and held off Moscow Burning, who rallied late while wide into the stretch to be second, one length clear of Bartok's Blythe, who also finished well.
In the Florida-California competition, California swept the top three spots. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile event under cloudy conditions was 1:46 1/5 on firm going.
Court replaced Patrick Valenzuela, who was suspended Friday by Santa Anita stewards for failing to comply with his drug-testing requirements, aboard the winner.
But the jockey said he wasn't at a disadvantage on a turf course and horse that were new to him.
"The owner and trainer gave me explicit and credible instructions of not only on how to ride the race, but how the horse likes to run," he said. "I just followed the directions to a 'T.' She is pretty much a push-button ride. There were no problems, no concerns, except that the pace was pretty leisurely and I thought everyone else would have a good punch on the end. I was just hoping I would be right there with them, the strongest at the end."
Atlantic Ocean, the 2-1 favorite ridden by Jerry Bailey covered the the early fractions in :23 and :46 3/5 while battling All the Honor for the lead. After six furlongs in a moderate 1:10 1/5, the pacesetters gave way in the stretch, Atlantic Ocean fading to be 10th in the 11-horse field.
Valentine Dancer won for the second straight time and for the third time in four starts. She won the Cat's Cradle for California breds at Hollywood Park Dec. 14 in her last start. From the Mr. Prospector mare Gilded Dancer, Valentine Dancer improved to 6-3-3 in 16 starts while earning $275,000 Saturday. She nearly doubled her career bankroll to $593,006.
She paid $10.80, $5.40 and $4.80 as the third choice. Moscow Burning, ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr., returned $5 and $4.40. Bartok's Blythe, Emile Ramsammy aboard at 61-1, showed for $19.20. the $2 exacta was worth $50.
Valdivia said he was proud of the effort by Moscow Burning.
"She broke her maiden for $12,500 and now she is competing in a $500,000 race," he said. "I am not going to make excuses and say that the 11 hole hindered us, in fact, I think it fell right into our hands, helping us to save ground going into both turns. No complaints. We just got beat by Valentine Dancer. "
After the first three finishers came Fencelineneighbor, Lost Appeal, Summer Wind Dancer, Tucked Away, All the Honor, Coxie Advantage, Atlantic Ocean and Smart Lacy.