09/29/2004 11:00PM

Ninebanks right at home

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Six Southern California-based runners will challenge the king of the course Saturday, when they take on Ninebanks in the Grade 3, $150,000 Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Ninebanks was second in this race in 2002, beaten a neck by David Copperfield, and finished third last year, beaten 1 1/4 lengths by Mister Acpen.

The highweight at 117 pounds, Ninebanks loves the Longden Turf Course - his record on it is 5-4-1 in 13 starts- and he can handle the 1 1/8-mile distance (5-1-1-1). He has worked steadily since running second to Stage Player off a freshener in the California Turf Championship on Labor Day.

Ninebanks should be in good position early in a race without much pace.

Night Patrol, looking for his first win of the year and first turf victory since the Grade 2 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile in 2002, should be able to take the lead with little trouble.

Needwood Blade should also be able to stalk here. He seeks his first victory in the United States and tries to go longer than a mile for the first time. Seinne, Mananan McLir, and Murano, the lone horse in the field to have not won a stakes, will be farther back.

Balestrini has won only one race, but it was the Group 3 Ballysax Stakes in his native Ireland. He finished fourth and second as the favorite in allowance company in his first two U.S. starts, and hasn't run since May 26.

"He should fit, providing he's back to form," said his trainer, Neil Drysdale said. "It's just a matter if he's willing to do it. He's very talented. It's just a matter of what's going on in his mind."

Balestrini hadn't run in nine months before making his first start for Drysdale, and now he has had another four months off.

Drysdale says Balestrini has grown stronger in the interim.

"He's happier and more content," said Drysdale. "That's why he's putting on weight."

Calling Balestrini the exception to the rule of horses coming to him from Europe, Drysdale said he virtually had to start from scratch with Balestrini and actually went back to the breaking process again.

"It's taken a long time to get him to perform in the morning," Drysdale said. "He's showing in the morning he's willing. We'll run here to see if he does it in the afternoon."