05/02/2006 11:00PM

Hofmans sees reason to believe

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Many racing fans will awaken Friday and be ecstatic that it's Day.

Meanwhile, the connections of the Oaks favorite, Balance, will simply be glad it's another day.

Balance didn't fare too well when she finished third as the heavy favorite in her last race, the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, and trainer David Hofmans is eager to see the two-time Grade 1 winner rebound with a more representative effort in the Oaks, the Grade 1 filly classic that will be run before an expected crowd of 100,000-plus at Churchill Downs.

"I think she's probably the best horse in the race," said Hofmans. "If she runs her race, she'll be right there."

Balance, a Thunder Gulch filly owned by the Amerman Racing Stables of John and Jerry Amerman, will break from post 4 in a full field entered in the 1 1/8-mile Oaks, which will carry a gross purse of $685,900 if all 14 start. Victor Espinoza, the filly's regular rider, will be aboard again.

Hofmans said it became plainly evident to him as the Ashland unfolded that Balance did not care for the Keeneland surface.

"We took her back to California after that and checked her out with a nuclear scan and blood work, everything you could possibly do, and she was fine," he said. "That just reinforced what I thought, and that was to throw the race out and regroup for the Oaks. We started looking forward right away to another day."

For Balance and her rivals, the Oaks is a fine opportunity to claim leadership of the 3-year-old filly division, which already has had such promising fillies as Adieu, Folklore, and Wild Fit defect from the top echelon. And there is no shortage of fillies ready and willing to rush into that void Friday.

Among those strongest of challengers are Bushfire and Wait a While, the respective one-two finishers in the April 8 Ashland; Diplomat Lady, winner of the Hollywood Starlet at 2 and the Beaumont Stakes in her most recent start; Wonder Lady Anne L and Last Romance, a potent pair based in New York with trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.; Miss Norman, the Fantasy Stakes runner-up; and Ermine, a stylish winner of the Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Two of the longer-priced fillies figure to be Quiet Kim and Top Notch Lady, but their respective camps are approaching the race with confidence.

"Ideally, I'd have liked to have gotten another race in her," said Mark Casse, trainer of Top Notch Lady, winner of the Bourbonette Stakes at Turfway Park in her only start this year. "But I ran her six times last year, so seasoning isn't a problem. If there's any distance that's perfect for her, it's the mile and an eighth. She doesn't have that big burst of speed, but she does keep coming at you."

Quiet Kim, trained by Bob Hess Jr., has been somewhat inconsistent but has proven dangerous in certain instances, such as when she finished second behind Balance in the March 12 Santa Anita Oaks.

"For this filly, it's all about the surface," said Hess. "If she likes it, she'll be one-two-three, but if she doesn't, she could be dead last."

Completing the Oaks field are Red Cherries Spin, Ex Caelis, Itty Bitty Pretty, and Lemons Forever.

Ex Caelis is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who is seeking a record-tying fifth Oaks victory. Lukas and Ben A. Jones, with four each, trail only Woody Stephens for most Oaks wins. Lukas's last Oaks win came in 1990 with Seaside Attraction.

The Oaks is the leadoff race in the Oaks-Derby double, a two-day wager that was first offered in 1996. Last year, the combination of Summerly and Giacomo returned $595.20 for $2.

The Oaks will be televised live on ESPN on a one-hour broadcast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern. It goes as the 10th of 11 Friday races, with its post time set for 5:45 p.m.

The weather forecast for Friday calls for mostly cloudy skies, a 30 percent chance of rain, and a high temperature of 72.

First post for both Oaks and Derby days is 11 a.m. Eastern.

The field

Kentucky Oaks
Purse: $500,000, 1 1/8 miles, Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1Miss NormanP. Morales20-1
2Diplomat LadyA. Solis10-1
3Quiet KimK. Desormeaux12-1
4BalanceV. Espinoza2-1
5Red Cherries SpinC. Nakatani50-1
6Ex CaelisJ. Leparoux20-1
7Wonder Lady Anne LE. Prado8-1
8Wait A WhileG. Gomez5-1
9Itty Bitty PrettyP. Valenzuela12-1
10BushfireC. Velasquez5-1
11Top Notch LadyP. Husbands20-1
12ErmineR. Albarado12-1
13Last RomanceR. Bejarano15-1
14Lemons ForeverM. Guidry20-1

* All starters carry 121 pounds o Track odds
* Television: Friday; 5-6 p.m. Eastern; ESPN