03/10/2006 12:00AM

Oaks likely a three-horse race

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Horsephotos
Balance (above) has a versatile running style, while Diplomat Lady is a front-runner and Wild Fit mainly a closer.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The consistent filly Balance cannot control the weather. Otherwise, she gets ideal conditions Sunday at Santa Anita, where leadership of the 3-year-old filly division is up for grabs in the Grade 1, $300,000 .

Although the 1 1/16-mile stakes drew nine entrants, it figures as a three-horse race among Grade 1 winners Balance, Wild Fit, and Diplomat Lady. No matter how the race unfolds, Balance should find herself in the right spot, even if the track is wet.

"She can make her own trip," trainer David Hofmans said. "If they go fast, she can be back. If they go slow, she can be close."

While Balance is more reliable than she is brilliant, her 3 wins from 5 starts include the Feb. 11 Las Virgenes, where she beat two rivals she meets again Sunday - front-runner Diplomat Lady and closer Wild Fit.

Diplomat Lady set the pace and tired to fifth in the Las Virgenes; Wild Fit closed from last to second. Balance, meanwhile, used her even-paced style to settle in midpack, rally four wide, and win by a length. Sunday's race could be a replica of the Las Virgenes. After all, the Oaks is only a sixteenth farther, and it includes the same three principals.

Nevertheless, expectations are for improved efforts by Diplomat Lady and Wild Fit. Whether she wins or loses, Diplomat Lady plays a key role because of her front-running style. In her first start after a 39-1 upset in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet, Diplomat Lady set a fast pace in the Las Virgenes, and cracked. Trainer Chris Paasch is willing to throw out the race.

"She was wringing wet in the paddock; she was pretty upset," he said.

Diplomat Lady has a history of stomach ulcers, and Paasch speculates that they contributed to her defeat. The filly's ulcer medication was doubled, and Diplomat Lady has responded in training.

Paasch also will remove Diplomat Lady's tongue tie and blinkers.

"I think she fought the tongue tie the other day," he said. "She seemed to resent it." Diplomat Lady wore cheater blinkers last out, and Paasch said: "It's better we take them completely off. Hopefully she will relax a little more."

Tyler Baze will ride.

Unfortunately for Diplomat Lady, the front end could be busy. Maiden front-runner Cheerily, trained by Patrick Biancone, was supplemented for $6,000; it costs another $3,000 to start. Cheerily ensures pace for Biancone's stretch-runner, Wild Fit. He said Cheerily has been "working really good" on dirt, including a sizzling 34.20-second gate work Wednesday. Although she has little chance to win, Cheerily may set it up for Wild Fit.

Winner of the seven-furlong Del Mar Debutante last summer and runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Wild Fit is not proven around two turns. Furthermore, her unbalanced running style - she has no early speed - is reason to question her ability in a two-turn route. But she enters the Oaks with a conspicuously improving work pattern.

Prior to the Las Virgenes, which was Wild Fit's first start in more than three months, she was outworked by the good morning horse Chekhov. But last Sunday in a six-furlong workout, Wild Fit turned the tables and outworked Chekhov in super fashion. The workout time - 1:11.40 breezing - was the fastest of 40 at the distance.

But can Wild Fit run long? Biancone wondered the same thing.

"The first thing the jockey told me [after the Las Virgenes] was, she needs more ground," Biancone said. "When he said that, it answered my question." The Oaks will test jockey Alex Solis's analysis.

As for the Hofmans-trained Balance, all she does is improve.

"She's learning to pay more attention to the rider, and do what he wants her to do," Hofmans said. "I think she's coming up to it in pretty good shape. It looks good right now."

Victor Espinoza rides.

Five others with modest ability entered. Quiet Kim won a slow maiden race last out, Horse B With You was claimed for $80,000 from a third-place finish, and Sweet Belle won a slow allowance. Karlee's Kitten lost her rider in a stakes at Turf Paradise. I Can See has a lifetime-best Beyer Figure of 72.

The field

Santa Anita Oaks
Purse: $300,000; 1 1/16 miles; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1Quiet KimP. Valenzuela20-1
2CheerilyT. Farina30-1
3Horse B With YouJ. Court15-1
4Diplomat LadyT. Baze6-1
5Sweet BelleC. Nakatani8-1
6Karlee's KittenM. Pedroza15-1
7BalanceV. Espinoza7-5
8I Can SeeK. John30-1
9Wild FitA. Solis8-5

* All starters carry 122 pounds
* Blinkers off: Diplomat Lady
* Odds by Michael Hammersly