06/26/2007 11:00PM

Jennie R.'s form flatters two in allowance

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Love Handles and Cat Hop did nothing more, one imagines, than spend last Saturday afternoon chilling in their respective stalls on the Arlington backstretch. Yet even as they poked at their hay bales and dozed, the stock of these two fillies was on the rise.

Love Handles was second and Cat Hop third behind the mare Jennie R. in a $50,000 turf claimer on June 3, and Jennie R. returned last Saturday to score a sharp victory in the Reluctant Guest Stakes, a victory that makes both Love Handles and Cat Hop look better in Friday's featured eighth race, a second-level allowance at about one mile on turf.

Love Handles looks especially interesting, since that second to Jennie R. - who was loose on the lead in her $50,000 claiming win - was Love Handles's first grass race. Trained by Brian Williamson, Love Handles is just a 4-year-old with 13 starts, and she may have room to improve - namely in the Friday feature.

Cat Hop, while more experienced on turf than Love Handles, also appears to be improving. Trained by Mike Stidham for Ragozin Sheets guru Jake Haddad, Cat Hop bottomed out over the winter with a pair of sixth-place finishes, but won grass races late in the Hawthorne meet and early at Arlington before her wide third behind Jennie R. and Love Handles last out.

Love Handles and Cat Hop both will have to catch habitual front-runner Miltos Express, and, if they can do that, may have Lady Lionel to hold off in deep stretch. Lady Lionel almost won a third-level allowance race on this course last year, and is eligible for Friday's second allowance condition only because her wins in Illinois-bred races don't count against her. Lady Lionel was off between November and May 27, when her comeback race was rained from turf onto Polytrack. She finished fifth of eight there, and is eligible for sharp improvement Friday.

Baird enjoying banner meet

Jockey E.T. Baird had 27 wins at the Arlington meet entering Wednesday's races - the same number of victories he posted during Arlington's entire 2006 season. That's a startling statistic, but one that was lost on Baird.

"Honestly, I don't pay attention to all that," Baird said before his first mount of Wednesday's card. And by mid-afternoon, Baird had two more winners, including one for his major patrons at this meet, owner Frank Calabrese and trainer Wayne Catalano. Catalano and Baird are the leading trainer-jockey combination so far this Arlington season, teaming up for 16 winners from 36 starters, though it seems like even more than that. Baird, closing in on second in the rider standings, also has gotten good business from trainer Michelle Boyce, for whom he rode Jennie R. to victory last Saturday.

"Definitely I'm pleased, but this business is like a roller-coaster ride," Baird said. "You never really know how it's going to go, and every day you can stay healthy it's a plus."

Catalano and Calabrese have regularly used Rene Douglas when Douglas has summered at Arlington, but Baird is getting the bulk of their business right now. Other riders of lesser national renown have been in a similar spot and eventually gotten the boot, but Baird said he doesn't feel extra pressure riding for the mercurial Calabrese.

"I don't think there's pressure, but you have to go out there and perform," said Baird. "You try to minimize mistakes."

Baird has made more good decisions than bad the last couple months - a major function of having enough horsepower underneath him. "Bad horses, they don't make anybody look good," he said.

Ciao eyes Virginia Oaks

Trainer Frank Kirby said that Ciao, a good-looking winner of a second-level turf allowance race June 17 at Churchill Downs, could make her next start July 21 in the $200,000 Virginia Oaks at Colonial Downs.

Ciao, a winner in 3 of 5 starts, seems to have a special affinity for the Churchill Downs grass course, where she won the Caressing Stakes last fall. Ciao finished 11th of 12 at Keeneland in her 3-year-old debut, but Kirby said Ciao "was horsing real bad that day," and that jockey Mark Guidry told him after the race that Ciao was never really into the race.

Kirby has the Sept. 8 Pucker Up as a longer-term goal for Ciao, bred and owned by Iron County Farms.

* Jockey Israel Ocampo was off his mounts Wednesday and will miss Thursday and Friday's cards here while serving a three-day suspension handed down for a riding infraction last Thursday.