11/30/2005 1:00AM

Turf, dirt - Balance is unfazed


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - You might not find him perched high on the local standings, but no one should ever be surprised when the name of Dave Hofmans appears alongside a good horse. After all, he has been training quality runners for nearly 30 years, with a string of credits that includes such major race winners as Alphabet Soup, Touch Gold, Adoration, Dramatic Gold, Awesome Again, and Cat's Cradle.

Northern Afleet was also a Hofmans production, winning such races as the San Diego Handicap, San Carlos Handicap, and San Fernando Stakes in 1997. But until last spring, Northern Afleet was never mentioned in the same breath as the rest of the Hofmans portfolio. That's when his son, Afleet Alex, took the racing world by storm.

"No calls, no interviews, nothing," Hofmans sighed with feigned regret. "Although TVG did interview one of his earlier trainers during the Belmont Stakes coverage."

Now Hofmans has come up with Balance, who won the Sharp Cat Stakes at Hollywood Park last Sunday by an untroubled 1 3/4 lengths, ears forward and looking for more, to earn a shot at the Starlet Stakes on Dec. 18.

In only her third start, Balance reduced the Sharp Cat's 1 1/16 miles - same distance as the Starlet - to 1:42.58. Her previous experience included a maiden win early in the Oak Tree meet and then a first-place finish in the restricted Hidden Light Stakes on the Santa Anita grass, from which she was disqualified and placed third.

It makes sense, then, that Hofmans and the Amermans would have had their sights set on the Miesque Stakes, advertised for last Friday on the Hollywood grass. But then a funny thing happened to the turf course, the Miesque disappeared, and the Sharp Cat popped up to fill the void.

"I guess we should be grateful there was no turf racing," Amerman said. "She has trained great on the dirt, but we wouldn't have found out how well she could compete on the main track."

Balance is a daughter of Thunder Gulch and the Kris S. mare Vertigneux (from the French root vertige, meaning "dizzy heights") who was picked out and purchased as a yearling for $260,000 by Amerman and his wife, Jerry.

"So many people just buy horses off the page, or off a videotape," said Amerman, the former CEO of Mattel Toys. "I think you've really got to go look at them. I'm lucky to have Jerry - she's made a real study of it, and we do look for larger animals that we think will develop. I'm still kind of a klutz, but I do like to look at their eye, the way they carry themselves, if they show a kind of intelligence."

Apparently, Balance was an eyeful from the beginning. Hofmans says he fell in love with the filly at first sight last February, when she was training on a farm in Ocala, and nothing has happened since then to quell his passion.

"I've thought from the start that she's one of the best 2-year-old fillies I've ever been around," Hofmans said this week, in the wake of the Sharp Cat. "She was a big, strong, good-looking filly, and smart - the whole package. I haven't been this encouraged by a 2-year-old in a long time."

Trainer Joe Blow can say something like that and it wouldn't mean a thing. Hofmans, on the other hand, is speaking from serious context. Through the years he has developed such precocious young runners as General Meeting, Individualist, Millen-nium Wind, Raw Gold, and Siphonic - especially Siphonic - who carried the Amerman colors to victory in the 2001 Hollywood Futurity.

"Look what she's done," Hofmans said. "In just three starts, she's gone from a sprint to routes, from dirt to turf and back to dirt again. And then the other day, she ran so fast. The more I think about it, forty-two and three for a 2-year-old is outstanding. You'd expect the older mares to run that fast.

"At this point I don't know what I can't do with her," Hofmans added. "Her mother won a couple races going a mile and a quarter, so she's got that going for her, and her father was tremendous on the dirt. Mentally she's great - cool in the paddock and all through the race. If I had to be super-critical, sometimes noises bother her, but not much. I think she'll develop out of that."

It is a long way from a quiet little stakes event in late November, before a sleepy Sunday afternoon crowd of 7,438, to the big room on Kentucky Oaks Day next spring at Churchill Downs. Neither Hofmans nor the Amermans are foolish enough to be making reservations just yet. But by the time the Starlet is run, Balance might have them pricing hotels.

"Someone just asked me which was more difficult, running a public corporation or running horses," Amerman said. "I told them, 'Man, it isn't even close. Running a corporation is simple. In racing, nothing is easy.'

"And it's not," the owner added. "I'm sure other people looked at Balance and passed her over, for whatever reason. You have to get the right people around you and take your shots at the right time. And then, after all that, you've got to be lucky."