03/21/2004 12:00AM

Friendly Michelle wins Santa Paula

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There is a huge gap on the West Coast between the Grade 1 3-year-old fillies and everyone else in that division, a point that Friendly Michelle hammered home in Sunday's $82,500 Santa Paula Stakes at Santa Anita.

Friendly Michelle could not handle the likes of A P Adventure and Hollywood Story when third in last month's Las Virgenes Stakes, and trainer Bob Baffert was reluctant to run her against those fillies, plus Halfbridled and Silent Sighs, in the Santa Anita Oaks earlier this month. Instead, Baffert dropped Friendly Michelle into the minor Santa Paula, and turned her back to a sprint from a route.

She went off as the odds-on favorite, and wore down her rivals with a methodical stretch run that brought her home 1 1/4 lengths in front of Lyin Goddess. Very Vegas was third and was followed, in order, by Allswellthatnswell and Mazella in the five-horse field. Precious Bag was scratched.

Tyler Baze rode Friendly Michelle, who was timed in an ordinary 1:17.34 for 6 1/2 furlongs on the fast main track.

"Tyler did a good job getting her outside and away from the dirt," Baffert said.

Friendly Michelle ($3.40), a powerful-looking chestnut daughter of Artax, has now won three times in five starts. The Santa Paula marked her first stakes victory. She was off last year from August until December.

"I want to stretch her out again, but this was a good, soft spot for her," said Baffert, who trains Friendly Michelle for Ed Friendly. "She's still immature. She's big. We had trouble with her shins last summer."

* Earlier in the day, favored Cayoke forced a hot pace and then held on stubbornly to beat an unlucky Just Wonder in the $75,520 El Cielo Handicap at about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course. Cayoke ($3.60) took over from pacesetter Grandiser at the top of the stretch, but was fully extended to beat Just Wonder, who was making his first start since August and who leaped awkwardly when crossing over the dirt portion of the course. Hemet Thought was third. Cayoke, under Tyler Baze, was timed in 1:11.64 while recording his 11th win in 33 starts. Jeff Mullins trains Cayoke for Michael House.