01/26/2007 12:00AM

Santa Monica can still shine

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Now that sprinting fillies and mares have been sanctified with a Breeders' Cup race of their own, perhaps it's time to start paying close attention to the Santa Monica Handicap again.

Played at seven furlongs in late January, the Santa Monica held its own as a major event for a long stretch of runnings, thanks to such winners as Bug Brush, Silver Spoon, Typecast, Chou Croute, and Tizna. Any one of those mares could anchor a rotisserie dream team.

More recent renewals have kept the faith, going to the likes of Lovlier Linda, Pine Tree Lane, Serena's Song, Exotic Wood, and Honest Lady. As for which of those was best at seven-eighths, like the old gunfighter said, "I'd hate to live on the difference."

Four years ago, the Sunshine Millions came along to undercut the Santa Monica on the same weekend with a $300,000 sprint for fillies and mares bred in Florida and California. Santa Anita Park management had every right to complain, except for the fact that the Sunshine Millions was cooked up by Magna Entertainment, the owner of Santa Anita Park. Go figure.

There has been an impact, with good mares skewed between the two events. But somehow the Santa Monica has been able to retain its Grade 1 status, thanks mostly to the participation of Kentuckians and South Americans such as Island Fashion, Sightseek, Surfside, Miss Terrible, Salt Champ, and Affluent.

Sunday's running offers nothing in that class, at least not yet. Pussycat Doll deserves top billing, based upon her wins for Mike Pegram and Bob Baffert in the 2005 La Brea and the 2006 Humana Distaff, both at the Santa Monica distance. Indian Flare will play a role for Bobby Frankel, coming off her smart local score on Dec. 28 in the Kalookan Queen Handicap (named for a Santa Monica winner), while Maryfield and Win McCool can throw plenty of early heat. Then there is Squallacious, the little filly with the powerful stretch kick who just finished second in the La Brea.

Political Web, a daughter of Petionville, will try to give the Everest Stable of Minnesota real estate investor Jeff Nielsen a second Santa Monica, following in the footsteps of stable star Island Fashion's victory in 2004. That was the same winter Island Fashion went on to finish second to Southern Image in the Santa Anita Handicap, making her the first mare to throw such a scare into the boys since Gamely (another Santa Monica winner) finished second to Nodouble in 1969.

If Political Web turns out to be half the racehorse Island Fashion was, she'll win a million dollars. The man in charge, Julio Canani, says she is training that way, which should be good enough. Canani was also the last of several trainers to handle Island Fashion before her retirement in 2006.

Among Canani's 237 wins at Santa Anita have been a Santa Anita Handicap, a Yellow Ribbon during the Oak Tree meet, and a pair of Santa Anita Oaks. He has won three Breeders' Cup events, four Del Mar Derbies, and trained a whole stack of fine horses. But so far, the Santa Monica has escaped him.

As for Political Web, she has been in Canani's care from day one. She was well respected from the start, but then pitched too high for her own good in races like the Hollywood Starlet and California Oaks while still a maiden. Back down to earth, Political Web progressed through the heart of the 2006 season with three wins and two seconds in five starts.

"This filly was always a big, strong filly," Canani said. "You saw what she did when she went a route of ground at Del Mar."

Canani was referring to the Torrey Pines Stakes of last Sept. 1, an unruffled 1 1/2-length victory going a mile on the main track. It was a good enough performance to justify a trip to Hoosier Park for the rich Indiana Oaks, but then the plan was scrapped.

"She got sick back there," Canani said. "That was it. I had to stop on her and wait for this year. She's been training good, those last three moves especially, doing it easy."

Typical of his conservative nature, Canani was not tempted by the seven-furlong La Brea on Dec. 30, even though it was restricted to Political Web's late 3-year-old division. She worked that morning instead, getting five-eighths in 59 and change, then came back a week later with a three-quarter move that shaded 1:12. A closer by nature, Political Web's serious exercise mirrors her running style.

Though he's been there enough, Canani looked slightly disoriented in the Santa Anita winner's circle following the running of the Tuzla Handicap last Wednesday. It was understandable, since he was presenting the winner's trophy - as one of Tuzla's former trainers - instead of receiving it.

"I like it better the other way," Canani said. The Santa Monica, wide open on paper, presents a legitimate opportunity.

"It looks like there's a lot of speed in there, which is good," Canani added. "My filly is fresh and feeling good, so let's see what happens."