02/09/2007 1:00AM

Balance seeking win at key distance

Balance can set a course for major stakes down the line with a victory in the 1 1/8-mile La Canada.

ARCADIA, Calif. - A year to the day after her first win in a Grade 1, Balance will be after another milestone in Sunday's $200,000 La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita.

The Grade 2 La Canada Stakes for 4-year-old fillies is run at 1 1/8 miles, an important distance in the 2007 plans for Balance, according to trainer David Hofmans.

Balance will be trying to win for the first time at 1 1/8 miles. If she is effective at that distance, races such as the $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap here on March 10 and the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park in October will become more feasible goals for owners John and Jerry Amerman. Those races, along with many other important stakes for older fillies and mares, are run at 1 1/8 miles.

The La Canada is the feature race on a nine-race program that includes the $150,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs.

The La Canada will be Balance's second start following a rest of nearly nine months caused by ankle surgery to have a bone chip removed. On Dec. 30, she finished third in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes at seven furlongs, her first start since finishing 11th as the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks last May.

Hofmans dismissed the loss in the La Brea after Balance chased a wicked pace of 21.94 and 43.90 seconds. She finished 5 3/4 lengths behind race winner Downthedustyroad.

"She'd never seen 43 and change in her life, and hopefully she'll never see that again," Hofmans said. "It wasn't her thing. She just couldn't see Downthedustyroad."

Hofmans passed the El Encino Stakes on Jan. 14, saying the race came too quickly after the La Brea. The La Brea "was a hard race even though she got beat," he said. "I wanted her to come back and be fresh. That's why I chose the La Canada."

Balance has run brilliantly at Santa Anita in the past. Last winter, she won the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes and Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks. Her long-term goal is the BC Distaff in October, with few starts in between.

"We'll run her very lightly," Hofmans said.

Balance is the lone Grade 1 winner among the seven fillies in the La Canada. Sugar Shake, the winner of the El Encino Stakes, is entered, but was also entered in Saturday's Gradeo1 Santa Maria Handicap.

Trainer Bobby Frankel said on Friday that Sugar Shake would start in the Santa Maria, leaving his stable with Witch Woman for the La Canada.

Witch Woman will be making her graded stakes debut and her second start in five months. Owned by Stronach Stables, Witch Woman finished third in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in January.

"She ran fine," Frankel said of the Gulfstream race. "It was her first time on grass. She's a nice filly."

Witch Woman, a winner of 3 of 7 starts, will be making her first start at 1 1/8 miles. She has yet to prove that she can compete at this level, but Frankel is hopeful that she can be effective as a front-runner.

"She might be" a stakes-caliber filly, Frankel said. "Was Sugar Shake a stakes-caliber filly before last time?"

There are two minor stakes winners in the field - Bai and Bai and Les Ry Leigh - as well as the stakes-placed Kris' Sis, who was a game second in the El Encino.

Bai and Bai won the California Cup Juvenile Fillies here in November 2005. She has won three minor stakes in northern California in the last year.

Les Ry Leigh won the Twixt Stakes for Maryland-breds at Laurel last August and was third in the Anne Arundel Stakes there in November.

Les Ry Leigh was seventh in the La Brea Stakes, a performance that came just days after she joined trainer Jim Cassidy's stable. She raced at the back of the field throughout.

"She's really picked her head up," Cassidy said. "We may have her a little closer this time."