01/26/2007 12:00AM

Squallacious on the verge of a breakout season

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PHOENIX - Fleet Indian is gone. So, too, are Happy Ticket, Spun Sugar, Star Parade, Dream of Summer, and Hollywood Story, fixtures of last year's distaff division.

And while Sunday's Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap at Santa Anita is a sprint, it’s also a potential springboard to bigger and better things – just the kind of springboard a horse like Squallacious can use to vault into prominence.

Her emergence would hardly be a shock. A daughter of Preakness hero Summer Squall, Squallacious made quite a splash to begin her career at Hollywood Park last April. She debuted with a rallying 1 1/4-length win, which came over one of her Sunday rivals, Political Web. Squallacious promptly came back at seven furlongs, the distance of the Santa Monica, and showed her maiden win was just the beginning. She bided her time and then blasted home to win by 3 1/2 lengths, geared down.

Trainer Mike Puype ran her next in the Grade 2 Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks on June 11. Not only was she stepping into graded stakes territory, but this also marked her first run at 1 1/16 miles. She again bided her time before putting in a strong rally. The only trouble was Hysterical Lady picked that day to run out of her mind and blew the race wide open on the far turn, powering home to win by 7 1/2 lengths. Squallacious nabbed second, two lengths clear of Downthedustyroad. You'll read that name again in a second.

After that quick ascent, Squallacious went to the sidelines. Puype brought her back in the Grade 1 La Brea at seven furlongs on Dec. 30. She was very slow into stride, but by the far turn was gathering momentum. She maintained a strong pace through the stretch but was unable to reel in runaway winner Downthedustyroad, finishing 1 1/2 lengths clear of favored Balance, who finished third. With a race under her belt, Squallacious figures to be primed Sunday.

Of course, she better be. The likely favorite is Pussycat Doll, an enormously talented mare from the Bob Baffert barn who was last seen winning the Grade 1 Humana Distaff Handicap on the May 6 Kentucky Derby undercard. Baffert reported she came out of the race wrung out, so he opted to give her plenty of time.

Another horse to fear is from the Bobby Frankel barn. Indian Flare hinted at huge ability here last winter, winning an allowance race by 10 lengths in February. She got a late spring vacation and returned at Saratoga to romp in another allowance race, looking ready for the big time. However, she disappointed in the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga and the Grade 3 Floral Park Handicap at Belmont.

Frankel shipped Indian Flare to Keeneland for an allowance race and, he hoped, a confidence boost. It worked. She finished strongly to win, and then was a solid third in the Grade 2 Chilukki at Churchill Downs. That came at a mile and she did falter a bit late, so maybe sprinting is what she wants. She moved back to a sprint here opening week in the Kalookan Queen Handicap and went wire to wire, showing she's back on track.

But Squallacious may be the one with the most upside. She registered a 100 Beyer Speed Figure in her second career start. Even when she got whipped in the Hollywood Oaks her Beyer was a 97; her comeback Beyer in the La Brea was 93, a very nice stepping-off point.

While she does her best running late, it’s not as if she has to come from the clouds. She did that in the La Brea after she got away slowly, but I don't expect that here.

With Pussycat Doll making her first start in a long time, and Indian Flare yet to prove she can handle graded stakes company, Squallacious is well spotted for a big run here, and maybe a run at the likes of Round Pond, Oonagh Maccool and the other big girls down the road.