Beaten by just a half-length in her first try for a grade I victory in December, Amerman Racing's Balance got the job done in fine fashion Saturday, winning the $250,000 Las Virgenes (gr. I) for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita Park.
Trainer David Hofmans didn't think the one-mile Las Virgenes was a distance the daughter of Thunder Gulch
would appreciate. But after stalking the leaders behind fast early fractions on the inside for jockey Victor Espinoza, Balance struck the front following a four-wide move on the far turn. She kicked clear in the stretch and held on gamely under urging to register a one-length score in 1:36 2/5.
The 2-1 favorite, Wild Fit, in her first start since a runner-up finish in the Alberto VO5 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), rallied from last in the field of seven to finish second, 2 1/4 lengths clear of Itty Bitty Pretty, a six-length winner of the Santa Ynez (gr. III) last month.
"She's a very mature filly," said Hofmans of the winner, "and she's coming into her own now. She's a stronger, smarter, calmer filly than she was last year." Balance and Wild Fit are expected to meet again in the 1 1/18-mile Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) on March 12.
Balance, who has been training superbly and figures to get better with distance, has now officially won three of five in her career – she was disqualified from first in last November's Hidden Lite on the Santa Anita turf – with earnings of $333,300 for John and Jerry Amerman. The only time she was beaten to the wire was in the Hollywood Starlet (gr. I) Dec. 18, a race won by Las Virgenes foe Diplomat Lady, who finished fifth Saturday after leading at earlier points in a speed duel with Meetmeinthewoods.
Those two were flying early through fractions of :22, :45 3/5 and 1:09 4/5 before Meetmeinthewoods folded on the far turn. Diplomat Lady led briefly but was quickly collared by Balance, who opened up a commanding two-length advantage in the stretch. She didn't care for feeling the whip from Espinoza inside the eighth pole but was game in holding off Wild Fit, who had to overcome some traffic difficulties in the stretch while finishing willingly.
Espinoza said he expected an earlier challenge from the gray filly Wild Fit.
"I waited a little bit with her at the top of the stretch, and I was looking for Wild Fit. I had a lot of horse under me, and she was just perfect today. I think the last time (in the Hollywood Starlet) I took too much hold and, when I tried to go, she resented it. But today she was perfect. She broke nice and relaxed, and I did what I wanted."
Wild Fit, ridden by Alex Solis as she has been in all five of her starts, raced for the first time for trainer Patrick Biancone and the Coolmore partnership of Magnier, Smith, and Tabor of Ireland.
"The winner was better today, but we'll build from here," Biancone said.
"I wasn't able to tuck in right out of the gate because the filly inside me (Dance Daily) broke out ... so that didn't help," Solis said of his ride on Wild Fit. "This was her first race back. I'm very happy with her effort."
Balance paid $7.20, $3.40, and $2.40 as the second choice, combining with Wild Fit ($3, $2.20) for a $22.20 exacta. Itty Bitty Pretty, with Patrick Valenzuela aboard, gained the show ($3) by 3 1/4 lengths after being left behind by Balance on the final turn.
The Bob Baffert-trained Talullah Lula finished fourth, followed by Diplomat Lady, Meetmeinthewoods, and Dance Daily.
Maverick Production Limited bred Balance, who is out of the Kris S. mare Vertigineux, in Kentucky. She was a $260,000 Keeneland yearling buy.
"She had a couple real tough races, so we thought we better skip one, give her that extra month, and let her grow up," Hofmans said. "She came around so quickly towards the end of the year that she didn't have time to catch up to herself."