03/28/2006 12:00AM

Balletto back after 17-month absence

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Tom Albertrani nominated Balletto for last Saturday's Grade 2 Rampart Handicap, then said she wasn't quite ready for that type of race. But she should be plenty ready for Thursday's $37,000 feature at Gulfstream Park, a one-mile optional claiming event for fillies and mares, four of whom will compete under a claiming tag of $250,000.

will be one of the two members of the field not running with a price on her head. Owned and bred by Sheik Mohammed's Darley Stable, Balletto was generally considered the second best 2-year-old filly in the country after finishing second behind champion Sweet Catomine in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Three weeks earlier, Balletto had became the first horse bred in the United Arab Emirates to win a Grade 1 race in the United States, when she captured Belmont's Frizette Stakes.

Balletto went back home for the winter after the Breeders' Cup, returning to the U.S. the following spring to prepare for her 2005 campaign. But shortly after arriving here she suffered a case of colic that required surgery, and it was announced in early June she would be retired to the breeding shed. Several months later, however, the plan changed when veterinarians gave Balletto a clean bill of health. By October she was back in training with Albertrani, who shipped her to Payson Park for the winter. She has been working steadily since mid-February for her return.

Edgar Prado will ride Balletto on Thursday for the first time since guiding her to her maiden win at 2.

is the only other member of the field not running for a claiming tag. She, too, will be making her 2006 debut, having been freshened since rallying to win a second-level allowance race under Prado at Aqueduct on Nov. 10. A daughter of Wild Rush, Carmandia is owned by the Buckram Oak Farm and will be ridden for the first time by leading jockey John Velazquez.

figures to improve off her third-place finish in her U.S. debut going six furlongs on Feb. 22. That was her first start since she won the Group 1 Tanteo de Potrancas Stakes in her native Chile last June.

Leona's Knight, Running Bobcats, and Take D'Tour complete the lineup and it would be an upset of major proportions if any of them beats Balletto. Of the three, Running Bobcats has the best credentials, having won a stakes at 3. She is returning to the allowance ranks for the first time since beating third-level optional claiming foes at Calder on Dec. 2.