11/01/2004 12:00AM

Balla Twine to put pedal on metal

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CHICAGO - The trainer Michelle Boyce finally could hold off no longer. Boyce had been waiting and waiting for the right spot to come up on dirt, and it wasn't happening. She had a couple of horses who simply needed to race, even if they had to race on the wrong surface. And so Balla Twine and Quest for Truth ran in the seventh race Oct. 22 at Hawthorne, with Balla Twine finishing eighth, Quest for Truth seventh in the 1 1/16-mile turf race.

Wednesday at Hawthorne, both get their preferred surface, and Boyce, barring the unforeseen, will get the money.

In fact, Balla Twine is edging toward the category of "cinch," especially if Hawthorne's dirt track continues to show a trend in the direction it was going Sunday, when early speed ruled. There are only five horses in the Hawthorne feature - race 1 on a nine-race card - and Balla Twine appears to be by far the fastest out of the gate. She has won 5 of 8 starts on Hawthorne's main track, and with speed jockey Earlie Fires named to ride, there are no questions of tactics on Wednesday: Balla Twine is going to the front, and there's probably nothing her opponents can do to stop her from getting there.

Four of the five horses, including both of Boyce's, were entered in the 1 1/16-mile race under a $50,000 claiming option. The only filly running under fourth-level allowance conditions, Sunset Kisses, is the one Balla Twine has to fear. Sunset Kisses has won two straight starts, one in an Arlington one-turn mile, the other around two turns at Hawthorne, and if her form has truly reached a peak, she could put a scare into Balla Twine and her backers in the final half-furlong.

Quest for Truth won 7 of 12 last season, and though Boyce and her owners were willing to plunk down $50,000 to claim her Aug. 1, Quest for Truth hasn't looked quite like the same filly this year. Jo Me the Money clearly is a cut below the top horses, while Cady's Cafe, a recent Mexican import, is a complete unknown. She did win a Mexican Group 1 in the fall of 2003 - and what that means is entirely uncertain.

Assistants have bosses on top

Look at the Hawthorne trainer standings, and you might think you were at Lone Star Park. Through Sunday's races, Steve Asmussen held a one-victory lead, 12-11, over Bret Calhoun. Both are more readily associated with races in the Southwest, and neither could realistically have expected their Chicago backup strings to operate so efficiently this fall.

For Asmussen, who won two maiden races with first-time starters here Friday, the good Hawthorne run comes on the heels of a surprisingly strong Arlington meet, where Asmussen finished second in the standings to trainer Frank Kirby.

"We've had a better string of horses in Chicago all year long," Asmussen said.

Neither Asmussen nor Calhoun spends a great deal of time personally overseeing day-to-day Hawthorne operations: That is what good assistants are for, and both outfits have one. Pat Cuccurullo, a longtime head trainer, is Asmussen's man here, while Peaches Geier serves as Calhoun's Chicago assistant.

Asmussen has done especially well in maiden races, while Calhoun is prospering with sharp claiming and allowance horses. Onlyinurimagination, a gelding who ran in and lost a $5,000 claimer three months ago at Arlington, won a second-level allowance on Saturday, running six furlongs in a swift 1:09.75.

Block picking his spots

Instead of shipping to Churchill Downs for the Ack Ack Handicap on Sunday - as once had been considered - the graded stakes winner Apt to Be stayed home at Hawthorne, breezing a moderate half-mile over the weekend.

"I've got an allowance race picked out next week, and that's where he's running," said trainer Chris Block. "My decision not to go to the Ack Ack was based on wanting to put him in a spot where he could win."

While Apt to Be remains in Chicago, Mystery Giver has made the move from the racetrack to the Block family farm near Ocala, Fla., where he continues to recover from a serious leg injury sustained in the Arlington Million. Mystery Giver's recovery is progressing favorably, Block said, and since Mystery Giver is a gelding, he will race again if he is able to come back as a high-level performer.

"He's looking better, and hopefully things will keep going in that direction," Block said.