03/21/2003 1:00AM

Buffythecenterfold makes 2003 bow

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In the five months since Buffythecenterfold finished seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, trainer Mel Stute has not lost faith.

"Everybody says I'm crazy, but I think she's the second-best filly in the country," Stute said.

Stute's analysis will be tested Sunday at Santa Anita, where Buffythecenterfold returns in the $75,000 Santa Paula Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. The 6 1/2-furlong stakes drew five entrants, and since none are named Storm Flag Flying, expectations for Buffythecenterfold will be high.

A two-time graded stakes winner, Buffythecenterfold won three races and $222,160 in six starts last summer. Since then, the division has thinned.

"Composure is gone and Miss Houdini [the Del Mar Debutante winner] is gone," Stute said.

The questions facing Buffythecenterfold on Sunday are twofold - is she fit off the layoff and is she good enough?

"I think she'll run very good," Stute said. "And in my opinion, she's as good as Very Subtle or Brave Raj."

Those two fillies won the Breeders' Cup Sprint and Juvenile Fillies, respectively, for Stute. Buffythecenterfold has yet to match the feats of those two, but she has excuses for her only two bad races. Her off-the-board finish in the Del Mar Debutante was largely the result of missed training when she got sick. Her Juvenile Fillies defeat was partly the result of not wearing stickers on the "good" track at Arlington.

Buffythecenterfold is owned by Allen Brian and Frank Stronach, who purchased a 70 percent share from Brian after the filly won the Grade 3 Landaluce at Hollywood Park. Buffythecenterfold will have a new rider Sunday - Victor Espinoza replaces Matt Garcia.

Stute said Buffythecenterfold eventually will stretch out to two turns, though he expressed concern that she "is not carrying as much weight as I'd like."

To win the Santa Paula, Buffythecenterfold must handle Watching You, trained by Stute's brother Warren, and front-runner Point Clear. The longshots are northern California-based Christmas Time and Tavy's Plan.

Watching You is the main threat. She finished third in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes in her last start, and may be better suited to the one-turn distance of the Santa Paula. Watching You has one win from five starts for owner B. Wayne Hughes. In one-turn races, she has one win and two seconds.

Point Clear rolled to an impressive 4 1/2-length maiden win Dec. 28, and subsequently was sold to John and Jerry Amerman. In her first start since being transferred to trainer David Hofmans, she won a weak allowance. The Santa Paula goes as race 3.

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