05/31/2007 11:00PM

Balance favored, ready or not

Charles Pravata/Horsephotos

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - All the customary excuses are prepared if Balance loses Sunday in the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park.

"This is not her favorite distance, she wants to go longer," trainer David Hofmans warned. Wink.

A multiple Grade 1 winner, Balance has not raced in two months. So how important is a Grade 2 race such as the Milady?

"It's not," Hofmans said. "It's just a prep race for the [Grade 1] Vanity." Wink, wink.

Besides, front-runner Hystericalady is simply faster. "That filly's numbers, her Beyer Figures, are so much better than our numbers," Hofmans pointed out. Wink, wink, wink.

Seven fillies and mares entered the $175,000 Milady, and, yes, there are many reasons to suspect the nation's top 4-year-old filly, Balance, could be vulnerable. But there is only one good reason to bet against Balance - low odds.

Balance is out of the pick six - the Milady is race 3 on the nine-race card - and long past hidden. Owned by John and Jerry Amerman, the Thunder Gulch filly has won 6 races and $900,159 from 11 starts, and was favored in 8 of her last 10 starts. In the Santa Margarita Handicap on March 10 at Santa Anita, she burst to fore as undisputed leader of the distaff division. "Her last race proved it," Hofmans said.

Trapped while Ermine got first run, Balance finally got clear, lowered her head, took aim, and wore down Ermine to win by a half-length with a 101 Beyer Figure. How good was the race? Ermine subsequently won the Grade 1 Apple Blossom, and third-place finisher River Savage won a Grade 3 two starts later.

That is yesterday's news. On Sunday, Balance will use the Milady to prep for the $300,000 Vanity at 1 1/8 miles on July 7. But is Balance ready this weekend? Reservations aside, Hofmans cannot hide his enthusiasm. "She's really good now," he said.

To win the Milady, Balance and rider Victor Espinoza must catch pacesetter Hystericalady. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Hystericalady stretches out after a four-length win in a Grade 1 sprint at Churchill Downs that earned a 108 Beyer.

The main issue for Hystericalady is whether her speed will carry on the synthetic surface.

"Cushion Track is an unknown," Hollendorfer admitted. "It's a different surface; it's not the same surface she won on."

Hystericalady won the 2006 Hollywood Oaks by 7 1/2 lengths when the main track surface was dirt.

A dawdling five-furlong workout in 1:04.40 a week ago hardly inspires confidence in Hystericalady.

"Her last workout was not the greatest," Hollendorfer said. "David Flores worked her, and he was perfectly happy to ride her off the work."

Hystericalady also bucks a track profile that does not play to her strength. Going into the weekend, only 3 of the last 33 races at 1 1/16 miles here were won by the pacesetter.

The Milady includes a hot new shooter. No one is training better on Cushion Track than Nashoba's Key. It is strange because Nashoba's Key has raced exclusively on turf.

"She trains great on Cushion Track, and she's doing very, very well, so we decided to go for it," trainer Carla Gaines said.

Nashoba's Key is 3 for 3, including a California-bred stakes win last out.

"This will be an acid test, and if she doesn't run well we can always go back to turf," Gaines said.

Joe Talamo rides Nashoba's Key, who carries 115 pounds, eight less than Balance (123) and six less than Hystericalady (121). Gaines has precedence for success with the turf-to-Cushion move. Last fall, she won the Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap on Cushion Track with turf filly Foxysox.

Ballado's Thunder and Cantabria each has an upset chance. Ballado's Thunder was compromised by a wide trip and passive strategy last time while finishing third in the Grade 3 Hawthorne. She drew the rail Sunday, switches to jockey Corey Nakatani, and is expected to use her speed to be in close pursuit of Hystericalady.

Cantabria was a flat second as the 6-5 favorite last out in the Grade 3 Hawthorne Handicap at Hollywood, but it was only her second start following a layoff. She should improve.

Great Opinions and Memorette also entered.