03/08/2007 12:00AM

A vacant throne beckons Balance

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The California older female division was decimated by the retirements in late 2006 of Healthy Addiction, Hollywood Story, and Star Parade.

Balance could fill the top spot in the division with a win in Saturday's $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap at Santa Anita.

Already the winner of three graded stakes, including two Grade 1 races as a 3-year-old last year, Balance will be a strong favorite in the Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile Santa Margarita.

Balance has already won at that distance this year, in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes here on Feb. 11. The La Canada was for 4-year-old fillies, and in the Santa Margarita she will face older mares.

"It's time for her to reprove herself," trainer David Hofmans said. "She has to prove she can fit in the older division."

In the early months of 2006, there was no doubt that Balance was a top 3-year-old filly. She won the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks, but finished 11th in the Kentucky Oaks, emerging from the race with an ankle injury that kept her away from racing until December.

Balance finished third in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes over seven furlongs in December before winning the La Canada by an eye-catching 4 1/4 lengths.

Balance's record of 5 wins in 10 starts and earnings of $720,159 has made her the 120-pound topweight in the Santa Margarita.

"She's very on right now," Hofmans said. "She wants to do something. She's coming into the race like she did in the La Canada."

The biggest threat to Balance is Ermine, who finished second to Sugar Shake in the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap on Feb. 10. Last November, Ermine won the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap over 1 1/8 miles at Churchill Downs.

Balance and Ermine have stalking styles, and will have targets in River Savage and Witch Woman.

River Savage, the winner of the Paseana Handicap over a mile on Jan. 12, failed to make the lead in the Santa Maria and finished sixth.

"The last time she had a bad break, and when she misses the break it's all over," trainer A.C. Avila said.

Witch Woman, fourth in the La Canada, was added to the field when stablemate Sugar Shake was withdrawn after developing a temperature earlier this week.