03/18/2005 1:00AM

Sweet Catomine making believers

Sweet Catomine will step up to face males in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby.

PHOENIX - Julio Canani is no dummy. He really isn't one to throw down the gauntlet and say outrageous things like, "She's the best filly who ever lived." Yet that's just what he said following Sweet Catomine's dizzying performance in last weekend's Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks.

It wasn't so much that she won by a bunch, and it certainly wasn't the time, though the track was indeed dead. It was the manner in which she won. Sweet Catomine really only ran about half a mile. Her natural gallop and eagerness dragged rider Corey Nakatani to the lead on the far turn, and almost dragged him into trouble - she swooped by rivals so fast she veered in a bit and almost interfered with a horse. Her finish was demonstrable enough, but the most impressive part of the nine-furlong race may actually have been her 10th furlong. Her gallop-out was stunning; she won the race by three lengths, but by the time she hit the clubhouse turn on the gallop-out she was about 15 lengths in front. That type of display should send a warning shot to all the males - this isn't some fly-by-night fast filly. This is a truck. This is a beast.

And Canani knows how to map out a campaign. We've seen it on a national scale before with so many of his top milers. There is no reason he can't do it with a 3-year-old filly.

I am usually ardently against a 3-year-old filly taking on the boys. Every winter, I cringe when all the talk is about how the top filly can beat the top males. In the last decade, we have seen such top fillies as My Flag, Silverbulletday, and Sharp Cat try and ultimately come up short against the boys.

There is a reason why only three fillies have won the Derby. But I am nearly a convert after Sweet Catomine's last dazzling display.

I can hear the other critics, too - she hasn't run fast this year. Well, that's true, but she hasn't needed to run fast. She only ran about three furlongs of her Santa Ysabel win and only about a half-mile in her Santa Anita Oaks win. And remember, she has already proved that she is fast. Back at Lone Star on Breeders' Cup Day, she ran faster than the boys - a lot faster (1:41.65 for her, 1:42.09 for the boys). Let her run all of the 1 1/16 miles of the Santa Anita Oaks and I guarantee that you would have seen a length-of-the-grandstand win and a much higher Beyer.

Again, Canani is no dummy. What would an all-out effort by Sweet Catomine have proven? Her dominance over the West Coast 3-year-old fillies? Big deal. We already knew that. If Canani is really targeting the Santa Anita Derby, and maybe the Kentucky Derby, why sap Sweet Catomine's strength and use up fuel when she doesn't need to?

Certainly the water gets deeper next time in the Santa Anita Derby on April 9, but the loss of Declan's Moon certainly helps. The rest of the West Coast boys, while a nice bunch, don't exactly spark memories of Silver Charm, Free House, or Sunday Silence. They're good - she might be great.

Another star for Frankel?

Megahertz may be the main focus of Sunday's Grade 2 Santa Ana Handicap, and rightly so, but I'll be keeping my eye on the other Bobby Frankel filly in the race. Barancella hinted at ample ability in France, where she won her debut, before finishing third in a Group 3, sixth in a Group 1, and fifth in another Group 3. She then brought her wares to the States and rallied strongly in the Grade 1 Garden City BC at Belmont on Sept. 12, just failing to catch the classy Lucifer's Stone. Barancella was turned over to Frankel's care after that and targeted the very tough Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup on Oct. 16. This race was even stronger than the Garden City, and again she closed powerfully to be second. This time, the rugged Ticker Tape, well known out West for stakes victories, proved too much to handle.

The die was cast, however. Frankel knew he had something good here, and there was no reason last fall to take on the big girls like Ouija Board in the BC Filly and Mare Turf. So, Frankel put Barancella away, and she has been working along steadily waiting for the turf season to get under way out West.

Even if some rain comes and softens up the Santa Anita turf course for Sunday, that would suit Barancella just fine. All six of her races came on courses with give in the ground (three "good," three "soft"). A daughter of Acatenango, one of the best horses to have ever run in Germany, Barancella may well be ready to make some big noise. Imagine that - Frankel has another turf filly to scare the Dickens out of everyone. It can start Sunday.