Taking advantage of a swift early pace, Victory Encounter circled the field on the turn for home and rumbled home to register her fourth consecutive triumph in Sunday's $150,000 El Encino Stakes (gr. II) for 4-year-old fillies at Santa Anita.
Ridden by Mike Smith, the Tom Mankiewicz-owned Victory Encounter made her graded stakes debut in the El Encino, the second leg of the La Canada series. Island Fashion, who won the first installment of the series, the La Brea (gr. I), impressively Dec. 27, was scratched from the El Encino in favor of the Santa Monica Handicap (gr. I) on Jan. 25.
Victory Encounter, who is trained by John Sadler, covered the 1 1/16-mile distance on a fast track in 1:42 2/5 while carrying top weight of 117 pounds. She defeated Personal Legend, the 2-1 favorite ridden by Alex Solis, by 1 1/4 lengths. Cat Fighter finished third, another half-length behind.
A Kentucky-bred daughter of Victory Speech–Marvelous Moment (by Raise a Native), Victory Encounter has done little wrong in her brief career, winning six of eight lifetime and never finishing off the board. But she had never faced such opposition. Her most recent start was a one-length win in the non-graded Torrey Pines at Del Mar Sept. 7. It was her only previous stakes appearance.
Sadler claimed her from breeder/owner Helen Smith out of a maiden race in April at Santa Anita for $32,000. She earned $90,000 for the victory to improve her career bankroll to $246,600.
"Her style is changing, coming from off the pace more than she used to," Sadler said. "I was thrilled with the race. She's absolutely surpassed my expectations. You just expect to make a nice claim and win a few races but she's just improved steadily."
Voodoo's Sister set the early fractions of :22 3/5 and :46 before giving way on the turn to Gone Exclusive after six furlongs in 1:10 2/5. Victory Encounter, who chased the pace from off the rail while sixth in the seven-horse field down the backstretch some 10 lengths behind, moved up on the outside for Smith on the final turn. Four wide entering the stretch but charging, she gained the lead in mid-stretch and won gamely under strong urging.
"I hit the front a little too soon with her," Smith said. "She got to looking around a little bit. As soon as they got close enough for her to see them she picked it up."
Personal Legend trailed the field down the backside while saving ground for Solis. She also angled four wide for the stretch run and finished strongly with a belated rally to take second. Cat Fighter, with Ryan Fogelsonger in the irons, wrestled the lead from Gone Exclusive and battled with the winner until giving way near the eighth pole
The 3-1 second choice, Victory Encounter paid $8.80, $3.60 and $3.60. Personal Legend, who just missed winning the Dahlia (gr. IIT) on the Hollywood Park turf by a nose for trainer Bobby Frankel in her last start, returned $3.20 and $2.80. Cat Fighter's show was $6. The $2 exacta was worth $26.40.
Hope Rises, Sea Jewel, Gone Exclusive and Voodoo's Sister completed the order of finish.
The age-restricted filly series concludes with the $200,000 La Canada Stakes (gr. II) on Feb. 14. Sadler said Victory Encounter would be pointed to the 1 1/8-mile event.