03/07/2006 1:00AM

Balavista seeks 'garden spot' behind pace


ARCADIA, Calif. - European imports Chinese Dragon and Balavista are in the same barn, but different leagues. That could change, according to trainer Bob Hess.

While Chinese Dragon is Grade 1-placed, Hess predicts Balavista "is a horse you are going to hear from down the line." He already has been heard from down the hill, and if he improves off a second-place sprint finish in his U.S. debut on Feb. 9, then Balavista can upset Macduff in the featured seventh race Thursday at Santa Anita.

A field of 10 entered the race, a $59,000 allowance for nonwinners twice-other-than at a mile on turf. It is a predictable class level on a predictable surface. Favorites have won 39 percent (44 of 114) of Santa Anita grass races this winter. On Thursday, Macduff and Balavista enter as deserving co-favorites.

rallied from 10 lengths off the pace in his U.S. debut Jan. 21, racing the final three furlongs in under 35 seconds and winning a first-level allowance going away. Trained by Neil Drysdale, Macduff regressed in his second U.S. start, though heavy traffic into the far turn provides a built-in excuse. Macduff backs up from 1 1/8 miles to one mile Thursday, and enters as a deserving contender under Garrett Gomez.

, meanwhile, stretches out from a downhill sprint to a mile on the oval. "He's a miler, that's his trip," Hess said, and though Balavista drew post 9 of 10, the trainer envisions his horse producing enough early speed to "lay in the garden spot" just behind the pacesetters.

If there is a knock on Balavista, it is that European imports do not always reproduce top form second time out.

"He showed speed in Europe, and I was afraid running him down the hill might make him a little speed-crazy," Hess said.

Sure enough, in his first postrace workout on Feb. 26, Balavista went fast early and slow late. But things went smoothly in a half-mile workout on Sunday that did not make the official tab.

Kent Desormeaux was aboard for Balavista's work. The plan was to keep him under a firm hold until deep stretch, chirp to him, and see what happens. "He exploded, [Chinese] Dragon-style," Hess said.

Desormeaux is back aboard Balavista on Thursday, and the 5-year-old enters as the horse to beat.

seeks his third straight; his win Jan. 29 was validated when the second- and third-place finishers returned to win.