01/26/2007 1:00AM

Pussycat Doll up against it in comeback

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Pussycat Doll, the Santa Monica highweight, has not raced since May 6.

ARCADIA, Calif. - A vulnerable Pussycat Doll returns from a nine-month layoff Sunday at Santa Anita, where the only seven-furlong race trainer Bob Baffert could find for the mare was the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap.

Call it the price for being so good.

"They don't write races for nonwinners of three Grade 1's, but we have to start somewhere," Baffert said.

Pussycat Doll will concede current form and weight when she starts as the 121-pound topweight in the $250,000 Santa Monica for fillies and mares. Pussycat Doll has won 5 of 10, but has not raced since May 6.

"There's nothing like recency, and any horse would be vulnerable carrying all that weight," Baffert said.

Pussycat Doll earned the weight by winning two Grade 1's - the Humana Distaff Handicap (under 119) at Churchill Downs, and the La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita.

The issue Sunday is whether sharp works and inherent class will be enough for Pussycat Doll to defeat a racing-fit group that includes front-runner Maryfield, presser Indian Flare, and closer Squallacious. All three ran well in their respective comeback efforts; all enter the Santa Monica with high expectations, including the least experienced horse in the field.

Squallacious scored impressive sprint wins last summer in her first two starts, ran second in the Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks, then returned from a six-month layoff Dec. 30 with a good second in the Grade 1 La Brea.

"Her resume is as good as it can be with only four starts," trainer Mike Puype said, adding that Squallacious "should have a big year."

The year would be made in one day if Squallacious were to follow habit by improving second start back and winning a Grade 1 in her fifth career start.

"My filly is definitely going to be fitter, and she probably won't be as far back," Puype said. "Twenty-eight days between starts is perfect timing."

Owned by Richard Trontz, Squallacious will be ridden by Aaron Gryder in a race that should unfold in favor of her closing style. That is because although Maryfield did not show her characteristic speed in a Jan. 1 comeback, her tactics will change on Sunday.

"Her main strength is going to it early in the race," said Maryfield's trainer, Doug O'Neill. "The game plan is to send away from there."

It did not happen in the Grade 3 Monrovia Handicap because O'Neill had front-runner Cambiocorsa in the race and elected to have Maryfield rated.

From the inside post Sunday, Victor Espinoza will have to use Maryfield early. And based on the 106 and 108 Beyer Figures she earned last summer, Maryfield is qualified to win. Claimed one year ago for $50,000, Maryfield has won three races and more than $300,000 since the claim. Win or lose Sunday, Maryfield will impact the pace.

Indian Flare blew out a quarter-mile Friday morning at Hollywood Park for trainer Bobby Frankel. Indian Flare earned a 98 Beyer Figure winning a minor stakes in her comeback last month.

"Numbers-wise, she's good enough," Frankel said. "The only trouble is if Maryfield compromises her on the lead. If she wasn't in there, I'd love my chances."

Fortunately for Frankel and jockey David Flores, Indian Flare drew outside Maryfield. If Indian Flare can relax pressing the pace, she would probably be first over if and when Maryfield weakens. Indian Flare could win the race if she holds off closers Squallacious and Pussycat Doll. Indian Flare has won 5 of 13.

The only graded stakes winner in the field other than Pussycat Doll is Win McCool. A Grade 3 winner in New York, Win McCool finished a dull fifth in the La Brea while racing for the first time in California. Win McCool was visibly uncomfortable with the Santa Anita racetrack in the La Brea.

Other entrants are Secret Scheme, Mazella, Nossa Cancao, Political Web, and Gins Majesty.