05/19/2006 12:00AM

Balustrade to defend Hasta La Vista crown


PHOENIX - The $50,000 Hasta La Vista Handicap on Sunday helps to bring a close to the long Turf Paradise meet. The traditional closing-day event goes as the 10th race, the final race of the meeting, and has lured a field of 12 for the grueling 1 7/8 miles on the turf.

, runner-up in this race in 2003 and 2005 and third in this race in 2002 and 2004.

Azarouak may well go favored for owner Irving Litchfield and trainer Armando Lage. The 5-year-old Azarouak graduated in Ireland in 2004 before shipping to the U.S. It took him a few starts to get things together, but he won an optional claimer at Golden Gate in June 2005. After a dull run at Del Mar last July he wasn't seen again for nine months. He resurfaced in the Walnut Creek at Golden Gate April 30 and finished well to be second. With that under his belt he might be set for his best.

Balustrade has, for the most part, found Southern California runners too much to handle since going wire-to-wire in this race last year. However, his form has perked up of late, with a fifth against tough optional claimers at Santa Anita March 25 and then a third, two lengths behind Azarouak, in the Walnut Creek. He's a proven commodity on this course at this trip and may be coming up to his best.

The Arizona racing scene shifts to the cooler climes of northern Arizona, as Yavapai Downs in Prescott Valley will commence its annual 60-day meet next Saturday. Yavapai Downs runs through Sept. 5. Turf Paradise will remain open seven days a week for simulcasting until racing returns here at the end of September.