03/19/2004 1:00AM

Friendly Michelle set to run big


ARCADIA, Calif. - There aren't any Oaks fillies running Sunday at Santa Anita, and so what? There is life competing around one turn, and six fillies will be out to prove it Sunday when they race 6 1/2 furlongs in the $75,000-added Santa Paula Stakes.

The Santa Paula goes as race 8; the $70,000 El Cielo Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs on turf is race 3. Stakes winner Just Wonder heads the El Cielo, against turf sprinters Grandiser, Cayoke, and two others. While the El Cielo runners are established, most of the Santa Paula fillies are still trying to find their niche. All, that is, except Very Vegas, whose ability matches her sprinter's physique.

"She looks like a Quarter Horse; she's got tremendous hindquarters," trainer Marcelo Polanco said. And she can run.

Very Vegas has won 5 of her last 7, including an upset win Feb. 29 in the La Habra Stakes on turf. Owned by Jeff Nielsen, Very Vegas was 16-1 in the La Habra, but on Sunday bettors will have to settle for considerably less, even if Very Vegas is not the most likely winner.

drops in class and shortens in distance after setting a fast pace and tiring to third in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes. The Bob Baffert-trained filly is likely to be favored in a field that includes speedball Precious Bag, late-running allowance winner Mazella, Allswellthatnswell, and Lyin Goddess.

Polanco took over the training of Very Vegas five days after she won the Arizona Oaks. He said the filly's previous trainer, Terry Knight, and regular rider, Mick Ruis, provided insight into her idiosyncrasies.

"All I did was keep her happy, keep her fresh," Polanco said. It worked. Her win in the La Habra was the richest and most lucrative of her career. She earned an 82 Beyer Figure, but will need to run faster to win the Santa Paula.

In fact, Friendly Michelle could be a standout. Sired by Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Artax, Friendly Michelle is owned by Ed Friendly. He and Baffert gave the filly one shot at route racing, but a fast pace and Friendly Michelle's potential distance limitations caught up with her and she finished third. She should be right at home Sunday going 6 1/2 furlongs.

"She's a very nice filly; she's very fast," Baffert said, adding that the key will be whether jockey Tyler Baze can get her to settle just off the pace. Friendly Michelle has won two of four starts, and Baffert said, "she's sitting on a big one."