George Krikorian's favored Starrer went over the $1 million mark in career earnings Sunday, pulling away from front-running Sightseek in deep stretch to win the $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (gr. I) at Santa Anita.
It was the third straight graded stakes victory for the 5-year-old Dynaformer mare, who won her first grade I race by two lengths, stopping the clock in the 1 1/8-mile fixture for older fillies and mares in 1:48.20. The winning time was fastest in the race since Paseana's 1:47.48 in 1992. A field of five following the scratch of Affluent contested the Santa Margarita.
Ridden by Patrick Valenzuela for trainer John Shirreffs, Starrer cleared the field to settle into second on the outside of Sightseek and jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., about 1 1/2 length behind as they made their way through the first turn and down the backstretch.
After nearing the leader as they reached the final turn, Valenzuela was forced to increase the pressure on his mare as she began to fall back and Bella Bellucci and rider Gary Stevens came with a strong rally on her outside. As Bella Bellucci ranged up to be even with her, Starrer responded to the urging and picked up her pursuit of Sightseek, reaching her near the eighth pole and battling with her for the lead into the final sixteenth, when she finally assumed control.
Bella Belluci was a clear third, three lengths behind Sightseek after failing to sustain her bid in the stretch run. The 9-5 second choice Got Koko, who had swept the three-race La Canada series at Santa Anita earlier this winter, ran fourth after falling off the pace on the final turn.
"When she switched to her right lead, she really took off for me," Valenzuela said of Starrer. "I thought Bella Bellucci was going to be the one to beat, but Sightseek really hung in."
"I thought things were going our way," Valdivia said of Sightseek's tenacious battle on the front end. "But Starrer is a monster."
Solis said Got Koko may have been tired.
"She's had a few hard races," he said. "She won't run again until Del Mar. She was flat today. I don't know why. She was fine in the post parade and warming up, but she was just flat."
Stevens said he thought Bella Beullucci, owned by Michael Tabor, was going to be retired for breeding. The 4-year-old daughter of French Deputy would retire with five wins, a second and five thirds in 12 starts and earnings of $511,820.
Starrer, carrying top weight of 121 pounds, was making her first start since winning the Santa Maria (gr. I) by 4 1/2 lengths on Feb. 16, her first appearance of 2003. She wrapped up last year's campaign with a five-length triumph in the Bayakoa (gr. II) at Hollywood Park on Dec. 15, which ended a five-race losing streak. Overall, she's won six of 20 with five seconds and three thirds for a career bankroll of $1,043,033. She picked up $180,000 for her victory Sunday.
Wind Hill Farm bred Starrer in Kentucky.
Sent off at 8-5, she paid $5.20, $3 and $3.40. Sightseek returned $3.60 and $4. Bella Bellucci's show price was $4.20. The $2 exacta was worth $17.40.