05/14/2008 11:00PM

Ciao faces tough foes in return


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Trainer Frank Kirby found a local spot for his talented turf filly Ciao to make her 2008 debut, but not necessarily an easy spot.

The Reluctant Guest may only be a $50,000 one-mile overnight turf stakes, but it drew a surprisingly deep and accomplished field of nine, and Ciao will have to come out firing to win her first race since last fall.

Kirby said early this spring, when Ciao was just getting going, that the filly might make her first start of the season in a Keeneland stakes race. Instead, Ciao will run out of her own stall for her first afternoon appearance of the season, a season Kirby hopes will be even more productive than 2007.

Last year, Ciao started out slowly but finished with a bang, capturing a Hawthorne allowance race in October by almost seven lengths - a huge margin for turf - before nearly upsetting Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup winner Bit of Whimsy in the Mrs. Revere Stakes on Nov. 10 at Churchill. Ciao made a big run from the back of the Mrs. Revere field, but could not quite push past Bit of Whimsy, who prevailed by a half-length.

Kirby said Ciao "should be a better filly" this year at age 4, and Ciao has posted six workouts for her comeback.

"She's had a good bit of training and she looks good," Kirby said. "Some of them need race, some of them don't."

To win the Reluctant Guest, Ciao will have to get past Ballado's Thunder, who comes off a sharp Keeneland turf win in a no-conditions allowance race. Away from the races between July 2007 and this past March, Ballado's Thunder has raced just twice for trainer Bill Mott, whose newly opened Arlington string is off to a solid enough start. Ballado's Thunder, who lured leading rider Rene Douglas, posted a quick half-mile breeze over the Arlington main track Monday.

Also in the Reluctant Guest are three of the better Illinois-bred turf females of recent seasons, Lady Lionel, You Dancing Devil, and Royal Leah, as well as another good-looking Keeneland allowance winner, Mama I'm Home.

Especially interesting, however, is the filly Forever Together, who makes her grass debut in her ninth career start for trainer Jonathan Sheppard.