Balance, the nation’s leading 3-year-old filly last year before going off kilter, continued her ascent toward the top of the older female division on Saturday while overcoming obstacles to win Santa Anita’s $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (gr. I) at 1 1/8 miles.
The odds-on favorite, ridden by Victor Espinoza, had to hook to the far outside leaving the quarter pole after being blocked behind a wall of horses. She gathered momentum in the stretch and gamely ran down 9-5 second-choice Ermine under strong urging to win by one-half length. The final time was 1:49.25.
The triumph gives Balance back-to-back wins at Santa Anita after taking the La Canada Stakes (gr. II) last month to terminate a three-race losing streak that had followed grade I wins in the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks last year. Balance has won four of five starts at Santa Anita.
Victory in the 70th Santa Margarita completed a graded stakes double for trainer David Hofmans, who also saddled victorious 3-year-old colt Desert Code in the Baldwin Stakes (gr. IIIT).
Amerman Racing Stables’ Balance, who carried high weight of 120 pounds in the Santa Margarita, rewarded her backers with payoffs of $3.60, $2.10, and $2.10 in the field of seven. Ermine, ridden by Eddie Castro, paid $2.60 and $2.40. In what evolved into more of a match race, the Brazilian-bred River Savage checked in third with Omar Berrio aboard, 5 1/4 lengths behind Ermine. She paid $4.20 to show.
"She’s won on turf, dirt, and synthetic tracks," noted Hofmans, who teamed with owners John and Jerry Amerman to win the 2004 Santa Margarita with eventual Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) victor Adoration. "She’s pretty good. She’s not going to ship. There’s almost zero chance she would run in the Apple Blossom (gr. I). We’re trying to plan so that we get to the Breeders’ Cup (at Monmouth Oct. 27) without too many races. That’s what I want to do. The Amermans want to race all year with her, they want to keep her in training, and that’s the goal.”
Leaving from the rail post, Espinoza settled his bay filly into a fourth-place stalking position along the rail during the early running. But by the time the field rounded the far turn, the 4-5 favorite was full of run with virtually no place to go. Espinoza could only sit patiently off the heels of his rivals until he was able to circle when positions changed entering the stretch. Ermine gained the lead on the outside from River Savage mid-stretch after Witch Woman established modest fractions of :23 3/5, :47 and 1:11. However, Ermine, who ran second in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) last spring when Balance finished 11th as the favorite, could not withstand the winner after inching away to the sixteenth pole.
“I knew everybody would be looking for me, so we just had to be patient,” said Espinoza. “Halfway around the far turn I was going to follow (Witch Woman) and she stopped. Then (Ermine) kept pushing everybody in. Every time I tried to go somewhere, somebody covered me up. At the top of the stretch, I was able to swing out and I had a ton of horse. I had no doubt I was going to catch (Ermine), but I was a little concerned in the middle of the turn.”
“Oh, man, I’ll tell you what. That hurts," said Ronny Werner, trainer of Ermine, who was also second to Sugar Shake in the Santa Maria Handicap (gr. I) one month ago. "It was a super-nice filly that beat her, but it’s disappointing. She ran hard, and you have to give her credit for that."
Werner said Ermine would run in the $500,000 Apple Blossom (gr. I) at 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn Park on April 7.
"She ran good there (at Oaklawn Park) last year, and we’ve actually got a stable there, so it should be a handy spot for her, hopefully.”
A 4-year-old daughter of Thunder Gulch --Vertigineux (Kris S.) bred in Kentucky by Maverick Productions Limited, Balance increased her earnings to $900,159 with the winning purse of $180,000 while her career record improved to 6-1-3 in 11 starts. She sold for $260,000 as a yearling at Keeneland in 2004.
The Argentine mare Vanguarda ran fourth, followed by Ready to Please, Les Ry Leigh, and Witch Woman.