01/22/2004 1:00AM

Defending champ in deeper this time


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Even after shipping cross-country, Smok'n Frolic was the favorite in and decisive winner of the inaugural Sunshine Millions Distaff last year at Santa Anita.

This year, Smok'n Frolic gets to stay home to defend her championship in the $500,000 Distaff, but even though she figures to run another big race, she might not be the favorite.

The obvious reason is the competition seems much stronger than last year.

House Party, a Grade 1 winner who had a useful race over the Gulfstream surface only 13 days before the Millions, is part of the 12-horse Distaff field. So is Royally Chosen, runaway winner of the Cal Cup Matron in November. And so is Pesci, the lightly raced filly who has created a buzz in winning her only two starts by a combined 13 1/2 lengths.

Todd Pletcher, who trains Smok'n Frolic at Palm Meadows for Dogwood Stable, said the issue of not having to ship to California should help the mare in her effort to repeat as champion.

"She's been training super," said Pletcher. "We'll have a short van ride down from Palm Meadows, and everything should be fine. Hopefully, she'll run as well as she did in winning last year."

Smok'n Frolic, a gray 5-year-old mare who tends to run her best races from mid-pack, will be ridden by John Velazquez and break from post 10 in the 1 1/16-mile Distaff.

Another gray, the 4-year-old House Party, appears to be her most formidable opponent. Bred in Florida by her owner, Joseph Shields Jr., House Party has been a model of consistency in a 15-race career that hit its high point last July, when she won the Grade 1 Prioress at Belmont Park. Because she has never raced around two turns, easily the biggest question regarding her chances in the Distaff concerns the distance.

"You never know until they do it," said her trainer, Allen Jerkens. "She acts like she can do it. It all depends on the company and the kind of trip she gets."

House Party warmed up for the Distaff with a rallying second-place finish behind front-running Harmony Lodge in the six-furlong The First Lady Handicap on Jan. 11. She will be ridden again by Jose Santos.

Royally Chosen, the lone California-bred in the field, also enters the Distaff off a sprint tightener. Trained by Bruce Headley, Royally Chosen finished first by a nose in an overnight stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 31, but was disqualified for coming out late and bumping an opponent. She has a high turn of speed that should allow jockey Alex Solis to place her on or near the early lead.

The most intriguing Distaff starter is Pesci, a 4-year-old filly owned in partnership by her namesake, actor Joe Pesci. After crushing maidens in her Nov. 27 career debut at Hollywood Park, she was just as flashy when capturing an entry-level allowance at Santa Anita. Mike Smith will be aboard the filly again Saturday.

"She's the real thing," said Wesley Ward, who has been training Pesci at Palm Meadows after having flown her in from California on Dec. 31. "I know she's still [eligble for] two-other-than, but that doesn't matter. She can flat run."

Joe Pesci, the actor, will be here Saturday to watch. In fact, Gulfstream officials, trying to capitalize on his star power, scheduled a Friday morning media conference for him.

Besides the logical favorites, the depth of the Distaff is further illustrated by the presence of stakes winners Redoubled Miss, Scapade, Cellars Shiraz, and Ivanavinalot.

The Distaff is the ninth race, with post time at 4:51 p.m. Eastern.