03/13/2006 1:00AM

Balance joins ranks of special fillies

Balance (above) impressively completes a two-stakes sweep in the Santa Anita Oaks on Sunday. The sweep adds her name to a list of stellar California-based 3-year-old fillies who went on to even bigger and better things.

ARCADIA, Calif. - It is mid-March again, time to channel the madness and turn up the heat on those colts and fillies who are starting to look like first-class tickets to Churchill Downs. In California, the winter has produced two of the best.

Of course, calling Brother Derek the top 3-year-old in the land isn't exactly a stretch, at least as long as long as Private Vow continues to lurk in the background and Bluegrass Cat remains content to be the king of Tampa Bay.

Arguments for First Samurai ("solid seconds"), Bob and John ("great potential"), Cause to Believe ("can't be blamed for his competition"), Barbaro ("1 for 1 on dirt"), and Corinthian ("unlucky sucker") deserve a good listening, but Brother Derek's consecutive efforts in the Hollywood Futurity, the San Rafael, and the Santa Catalina require no explanatory qualifications, other than a simple, "He won big."

Now the Santa Anita Oaks, run last Sunday, has brought forth Southern California's female version of Brother Derek, giving the West Coast the early favorites at this point for the Kentucky Derby and its prestigious companion, the Kentucky Oaks.

Balance, a daughter of Thunder Gulch, is a filly who seems destined to carry her owners, John and Jerry Amerman, and trainer, Dave Hofmans, as far as the game allows. In taking the 1 1/16-mile Santa Anita Oaks by a comfortable 2 1/2 lengths, she literally won for fun, making runner-up Quiet Kim look good by comparison and beating third-place Wild Fit with ease.

Coupled with her victory in the one-mile gave Balance a sweep of the two major tests for Santa Anita's best 3-year-old fillies. But while she has clearly separated herself from the rest of the California class, the accomplishment is not unique. Commonplace is a better description.

The Oaks goes back to the beginning of Santa Anita's history (it was known as the Santa Susana Stakes until 1986), while the Las Virgenes joined the parade in 1983. Since then, in 24 runnings, the Las Virgenes winner has come back to win the Oaks no fewer than 14 times.

Balance has joined a list of names that includes Althea, Fran's Valentine, Timely Assertion, Lite Light, Lakeway, Serena's Song, Antespend, Sharp Cat, Excellent Meeting, Surfside, Golden Ballet, You, and Composure.

What those fillies have in common - besides the ability to win two races in a row at Santa Anita - is an almost universal ability to take their act on the road. With the exception of Composure, who went wrong after the Santa Anita Oaks and never raced again, 10 of the remaining 12 flattered their Santa Anita winter form with at least one major win in the East or Midwest as 3-year-olds.

Fran's Valentine and Lite Light won the Kentucky Oaks. Lite Light and Excellent Meeting won the Fantasy at Oaklawn. Sharp Cat and You won the Acorn Stakes in New York. Lakeway and Serena's Song won the Mother Goose, and Surfside defeated males in the Clark Handicap. Of the others, Antespend was second in the Fantasy, while Golden Ballet was second in the Ashland.

With the bar already set perilously high, Dave Hofmans was asked if he thinks Balance will be able to replicate her best game out of town. The answer was no real surprise.

"I think she'll be okay," Hofmans said. "She ships from Hollywood Park to Santa Anita for her races over there, and she's handled it well. Sometimes I think they handle a plane flight better than a van ride across town."

In action, Balance is a sight to behold, living up to her name with a finely tooled stride that has already handled turf and a variety of dirt. Given this potent package, her trainer was asked if she ever put a foot wrong.

"No - well, yeah, she kicks somebody every now and again," Hofmans replied. "But that part we put up with. In her case, we don't consider that wrong."

Thunder Gulch was a broad-backed tank who loved a good ruckus, so it is no surprise to learn that Balance possesses a full-blooded personality, with all the psychological markings of a diva-in-training.

"She is very much her own person," Hofmans said, and yes, he meant to say "person." Remember, successful trainers like Hofmans spend more time with their horses than they do with their families.

"She dictates what happens with her," Hofmans noted. "You don't fight her, you just try to get along with her. Things have to be done at her pace.

"For instance," he continued, "she'll go out there one morning and stand like a pony. She'll stand there with three outriders for as long as you'll let her. The next morning she'll come out, stand there, and then try to buck the rider off. You figure, okay, that's what she wanted to do today.

"Horse people, especially the Kentuckians who spend all their time raising yearlings, look for the horse that looks right through you," Hofmans added. "It's as if they're thinking, you're just not that important to them. Balance is like that. She has a great deal of confidence in herself."

If all continues to go as hoped, Hofmans and the Amermans could be very much in demand during Kentucky Derby Week. In addition to Balance in the Oaks, the team could be on the starting grid for the Derby with Sacred Light, a son of Holy Bull who just finished second to Brother Derek in the Santa Catalina Stakes.

The Amermans have flirted with the Derby before, but so far have yet to make the race. In the early spring of 2002, Hollywood Futurity winner Siphonic was injured prior to the Derby, while last year a similar fate befell Golden Shine, an impressive local winner who got as far as the San Felipe before he was grounded.

"A lot can happen between now and then," Hofmans said, referring to the Derby/Oaks package. "But it's fun to have the horses who might take us there."