12/28/2006 1:00AM

Balance comes off the sidelines

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Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Balance, winning the Santa Anita Oaks in March, has not started since the Kentucky Oaks in May.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The way that Balance started her career has left trainer David Hofmans confident she can win Saturday's $250,000 La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita.

Balance, a winner of 4 of 8 starts and $570,159, won 4 of her first 6 starts. She has not started since finishing 11th in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs last May, emerging from that race with a bone chip in an ankle.

The injury ended any chance of starting in the major races of the spring and fall. Instead, Hofmans and owners Jerry and John Amerman focused on 2007. The first start of that campaign is the Grade 1 La Brea, which is run at seven furlongs for 3-year-old fillies.

"She's matured," Hofmans said. "She's stronger, smarter, and a more relaxed filly. She looks fresh and strong. She's coming up to it well."

Balance has drawn post 3 in a high-quality field of 11 that includes eight stakes winners. The other three fillies are stakes-placed.

Balance will be ridden by her regular rider, Victor Espinoza, who is likely to keep the filly off the pace for the first half-mile. While Balance has won from the front - in the Sharp Cat Stakes at Hollywood Park in November 2005 - her best performances have come from a stalking position. She used that style to win the Grade 1 Las Virgenes and Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks over this track last winter.

Hofmans has no concern about starting Balance at seven furlongs in her first race off a layoff.

"Seven-eighths is harder on sprinters, and she'll be laying back a little bit," he said.

The La Brea field is a mix of sprinters and routers.

The race marks the California debut of Win McCool, the winner of the Grade 3 Floral Park Handicap at Belmont Park in September. She was second in the Grade 2 First Flight Handicap at Aqueduct in November in her most recent start.

Trainer Robert Barbara brought Win McCool to California for two races, including the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap at seven furlongs on Jan. 18.

"We wanted to see if we can get a Grade 1," Barbara said. "She's probably going to the breeding shed next year."

Win McCool can lead but is not one-dimensional, Barbara said.

"She's learning to relax," Barbara said. "She has her quirks. You've got to be patient with her."

The presence of River's Prayer will ensure a quick pace. She won the California Cup Distaff on the hillside turf course in October before finishing 14th as a 50-1 outsider in the Matriarch Stakes on turf at Hollywood Park last month. River's Prayer won the seven-furlong Fleet Treat Stakes at Del Mar during the summer.

Squallacious and Foxysox are best from off the pace, and will figure prominently in the betting.

Squallacious has not started since finishing second in the Grade 2 Hollywood Breeders' Cup Oaks at Hollywood Park last June, her only loss in three starts. Trained by Mike Puype, Squallacious won two sprints at Hollywood Park last spring.

Puype is not concerned about the layoff.

"She'll be just fine on Saturday," Puype said. "I've been pointing to this forever. It's a big race for her."

Russell Baze rides Squallacious in the La Brea, replacing Corey Nakatani, who has opted for Foxysox.

Foxysox has never raced at seven furlongs. She won her first start on a surface other than turf on Dec. 3, in the Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on Hollywood Park's synthetic track. In that race, she rallied from last in a field of 12 to win by a neck.

Foxysox will need to be closer to the front to be effective on Saturday.

"We'll have to rely on how the race sets up," trainer Carla Gaines said.

The questions of how Foxysox will handle the shorter distance and how Balance will respond after a layoff make the La Brea an intriguing race.