11/29/2007 1:00AM

Romance Is Diane on the rebound

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Bayakoa rivals Sugar Shake (above), Romance Is Diane, and Tough Tiz's Sis are Grade 1 winners.
INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The career of Romance Is Diane appeared to be going nowhere last spring after three bad losses at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.

After she was given an early summer vacation, Romance Is Diane returned to form. She won the California Cup Matron at Santa Anita last month, a performance that may have kept her from being retired and prolonged her career.

Earlier this week, trainer Mike Mitchell said that he was planning a 2008 campaign for the 3-year-old filly and that Romance Is Diane "is as good as she can be."

Mitchell will have a chance to prove that opinion when she starts in Saturday's $150,000 Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park.

"She's so sharp, there is no reason to retire her," Mitchell said.

The Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap, run at 1 1/16 miles, has drawn three Grade 1 winners in a field of seven. Romance Is Diane won the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet here in 2006, Sugar Shake won the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita last February, and Tough Tiz's Sis won the Grade 1 Lady's Secret Stakes at Oak Tree at Santa Anita in October.

Those three figure to dominate the race. A win by one of the other four entrants - Lavender Sky, Sohgol, Fonce De, or Grain of Truth - would be a surprise.

Romance Is Diane, 3, is coming off a career-best performance in the California Cup Matron, a win that ended a five-race losing streak dating back to the 2006 Starlet. Owned by Senji Nishimura, Romance Is Diane led throughout to win by 6 1/4 lengths under jockey Michael Baze.

Mitchell thinks Romance Is Diane is better when racing near the front.

"I told Michael the other day, 'I want her laying close,' " Mitchell said.

There could be a crowd on the lead in the Bayakoa. Romance Is Diane may be joined on the lead by Sugar Shake and Tough Tiz's Sis, both of whom have shown ample speed.

Romance Is Diane carries 115 pounds, five fewer than joint topweights Sugar Shake and Tough Tiz's Sis.

Mitchell considered holding Romance Is Diane out of the Bayakoa and running her in the Cat's Cradle Handicap for statebred females at 7 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on Dec. 21, but said he felt more comfortable racing her around two turns.

"I don't want to go back in distance," Mitchell said. "I think this is a good race for her. There are some nice fillies in here. The one thing about her is that she's won a Grade 1. You can't take that away from her."

Sugar Shake won the Grade 3 Turnback the Alarm Handicap at Aqueduct on Nov. 4, her first win since the Santa Maria. Trained by Bobby Frankel, Sugar Shake ran in top-class races in New York and Kentucky earlier this year, finishing fourth behind Panty Raid in the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland in October.

"Those were good horses that beat her in the Spinster," Frankel said.

Frankel said that Sugar Shake is not reliant on making the front, and that she stalked the pace in the Turnback the Alarm before taking off on the backstretch.

"She tracked the other day and took over at the half-mile pole," he said. "She's good and she tries hard."

Tough Tiz's Sis is the only member of the field who ran in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park over a sloppy track on Oct. 27. Sent off at 22-1, she was at the back of the field throughout and finished seventh, 16 3/4 lengths behind winner Ginger Punch.

"She got pinched back on the first turn and after that she didn't really relish the going," trainer Bob Baffert said.

Tough Tiz's Sis has been outstanding on California's synthetic tracks this year, winning both of her starts, the first of which was the Grade 2 Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks here in June.

"Synthetic really moves her up," Baffert said. "She likes to be up close. She's steady, just a grinder."

Tough Tiz's Sis has drawn post 5, starting to the outside of Sugar Shake and Romance Is Diane.

"It looks like a tough race," Baffert said. "Romance Is Diane was a freak last time."