04/24/2004 12:00AM

Balla Twine will be hard to catch


STICKNEY, Ill. - Pass the Pepper had the rail and the speed in Hawthorne's featured race last Friday, but it did not matter. Hounded for the first three furlongs by Smoke Chaser, Pass the Pepper ran out of gas in the stretch and finished a distant second.

Perhaps her barn-mate, Balla Twine, can make more of a similar setup. Balla Twine will be the first horse to enter the starting gate on Hawthorne's Monday card, and she has a good chance to be the first horse to the finish in the featured first race. For fourth-level allowance horses or $40,000 to $50,000 claimers, the race drew just six horses, and on paper, none can stay with Balla Twine in the early going.

Pass the Pepper and Balla Twine both hail from Michelle Boyce's barn, and E.T. Baird rides both mares. Pass the Pepper is a sprinter, Balla Twine a route horse - the sort that likes to sprint to the front and gallop strongly on the lead. At her best, she is very good at it.

Balla Twine, now 6, has won 10 of 28 lifetime starts, and four of seven at Hawthorne. She ended her last campaign with two blowout wins, the first here at Hawthorne and the second Jan. 18 at Turfway, but Balla Twine's speed was no match for the class of Julie's Prize, the Illinois-bred standout, in a March 21 allowance race here. Balla Twine finished third in that start, but Monday's opponents reside in a lower-rent district. If Baird gets Balla Twine out of the gate - and this is what he is known for - she probably is not coming back to this field.

Still, that was expected of Pass the Pepper on Friday, and she was no match for Smoke Chaser. For those inclined to dig, Smoke Chaser is trained by Dale Bennett, who has True Ruby in Monday's feature. True Ruby has decent ability, but she is no Smoke Chaser, who cruised past Pass the Pepper and won by 7 3/4 lengths in her 2004 debut.

Smoke Chaser was making her first start for Bennett, who at just 31 years of age has managed to carve a niche on the Chicago circuit, and has picked up some stock for Smoke Chaser's owner, the Savoy Stable. Trainer Kathleen O'Connell legged up Smoke Chaser at Calder for this comeback, with Bennett taking over a few weeks ago.

"She ran a big race yesterday," said Bennett. "We'll look for a stake for her somewhere, but it's hard to find races for a sprinter."