01/24/2007 12:00AM

Pussycat Doll back in action

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Nearly nine months after winning the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the Kentucky Derby undercard, Pussycat Doll will make a comeback in Sunday's $250,000 Santa Monica Handicap, the nation's first Grade 1 race of the year.

The seven-furlong race for fillies and mares is over a distance at which Pussycat Doll specializes, but one that will not be her focus for 2007, trainer Bob Baffert said.

Baffert hopes to run Pussycat Doll around two turns as the season progresses, with the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park in October as a long-term goal.

First, Pussycat Doll must return to her outstanding form from late 2005 and early 2006. Owned by Mike Pegram, Pussycat Doll has won four of her last six starts, all in stakes. Aside from the Humana Distaff, the highlight of that span was a win in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs in late 2005.

Baffert said that Pussycat Doll was taken out of training last spring after she failed to recover quickly from the Humana Distaff, in which she finished a length in front of stablemate Behaving Badly.

"When I got her back from Churchill Downs, she was knocked out and didn't look good," Baffert said. "The Churchill Downs surface will take its toll on a horse. It was loose.

"I didn't feel comfortable with her. I had to get her time off."

When Baffert realized that Pussycat Doll could not be ready for the BC Distaff last fall, he abandoned her 2006 campaign. "I thought I'd get her ready for the winter," he said.

Pussycat Doll is best as a closer, and should have a pace to follow in the Santa Monica. Among her opponents are the front-running Indian Flare, who won the Kalookan Queen Handicap here on Dec. 28, and Squallacious, who finished second in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes on Dec. 30.

Other probable starters are Maryfield, Nossa Cancao, Political Web, and Win McCool.

Super Strut exceeds expectations

In 2003, at the start of his career, it seemed improbable that Super Strut would be making an appearance in a $500,000 race like Saturday's Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita. Joe Masino, the principal behind Super Strut's co-owner, Class Racing Stable, dared not to dream of such lucrative races when Super Strut was running in, and losing, maiden claiming races.

"We thought in the early days he might be an allowance horse," Masino said. "He fooled us. He tries every time."

Super Strut, 7, will be after his second stakes win in the Sunshine Millions Turf, one of four stakes for California-breds and Florida-breds at Santa Anita on Saturday. Four other Sunshine Millions races, including the $1 million Classic, are being held at Gulfstream Park on Saturday.

Super Strut has become a Sunshine Millions regular. He was seventh in the 2005 Turf, and 10th in the 2006 Classic, both at Santa Anita. He was a longshot in both of those races, but appears to be more of a contender in Saturday's race.

Super Strut had his best year in 2006, winning 2 of 8 starts and $226,190. The earnings represent more than half of his career total of $441,740. The highlight was a gritty win by a nose in the Crystal Water Handicap at a mile on turf here last March. He followed that performance with second- and third-place finishes in five consecutive stakes, including a third in the Grade 3 Del Mar Handicap in late August.

"He's a diamond in the rough," Masino said. "We thought when we bought him he'd be a router and the grass would move him up."

Super Strut is far from the only maiden claimer to run in the Sunshine Millions. Of the 105 horses entered in Saturday's eight Sunshine Millions Races, 41 started in maiden claiming races at the start of their careers.

The list of ex-maiden claimers includes some of the most prominent horses on the program, including Lava Man, the favorite in the Turf; Bordonaro, the favorite in the Sprint; and Somethinaboutlaura, a leading contender in the Distaff.

Of the 40 California-breds entered in the eight races, 20 have started in maiden claiming races. Only 21 of the 65 Florida-breds that were entered have raced at that level.

Super Strut, who is trained by Craig Dollase, made two appearances in maiden claimers early in his career. He finished fifth in his career debut in January 2003, his only start for trainer Doug O'Neill. In April 2004, after being bought, Masino said, for "$35,000 to $40,000" by Class Racing Stable and Tom Arndt's A&R Stables, Super Strut finished second in a maiden claimer at Hollywood Park.

Super Strut won his next start, a maiden special weight race on turf, in May 2004 when trained by Grant Hofmans. Since the maiden win, Super Strut has made 19 of 22 starts on turf.

The gelding has been with Dollase since the summer of 2004, after Hofmans moved to Kentucky.

For Saturday's Turf, Super Strut has drawn post 11 in a field of 12. Masino and Dollase had hoped for a post closer to the inside.

"Of course, Lava Man is in there, but we have to take a shot," Masino said. "But that's the fun part. If we can get a little lucky, it would be fun."

Downthedustyroad back with Baffert

Downthedustyroad, the winner of the 2006 La Brea Stakes, has returned to Baffert's stable after changing hands for $1.5 million at the Keeneland January all-ages sale. Downthedustyroad was sold by Ahmed Zayat and purchased by agent Tim McMurry for Theiline Scheumann, Baffert said.

Baffert said he is pointing Downthedustyroad to the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on May 5, with a possible prep in advance. He said that Downthedustyroad emerged from her trip to the Kentucky sale "a little light. It was a long trip."