06/17/2005 12:00AM

Look for an improved Ascot Dream

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CHICAGO - Three days after she deplaned, having been privately purchased and flown from France to Kentucky, Ascot Dream ran smack into one of the stronger 3-year-old filly grass races of the season, the Appalachian Stakes at Keeneland. Ascot Dream broke slowly and never really got involved in the race, finishing fifth of eight behind the undefeated Melhor Ainda.

"I knew absolutely nothing about her when I ran her," said trainer Elliott Walden. "I bought her and ran her right off the plane. Sometimes that works really well. But she walked out of the gate and just kind of ran around out there."

That was two months ago, and Ascot Dream could show substantial improvement when she returns to the races in Sunday's Double Delta, an overnight turf stakes at Arlington. Ascot Dream also was entered in Saturday's Regret Stakes at Churchill Downs, but Walden said he would scratch and come to Arlington. Ascot Dream, Irish-bred and a three-time winner in France, placed in listed stakes last season, and showed her best form on firm ground, a hint she is well suited to American racing.

"We hope this is a stepping-stone to bigger things," Walden said.

Ascot Dream is one of nine entered in the Double Delta, worth $40,000 and carded for one-mile. Also in are two fillies from the barn of trainer Grant Forster, Rugula and A Classic Life. The latter was unbeaten at 2, but showed little in a sprint comeback race last out at Arlington. Rugula, however, will be a major factor if she transfers her dirt form to turf. Rugula finished seventh in the Kentucky Oaks, but had previously run second in the Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes, and Forster believes she will move forward on grass.

Classic Life is the Double Delta's only stakes winner, but only because More Than Promised was disqualified from first to second in a restricted stakes six weeks ago at Calder. The disqualification was controversial, according to trainer Steve Asmussen.

"She should be a stakes winner already. We'll see if we can remedy that Sunday," Asmussen said.

Throwouts are few in the Double Delta, and the race might come down to which horse gets the right trip. Rugula and the stretchout sprinter Shadowy Waters will likely set the pace, with several horses stacking up in the second tier.

Northern Lane, a live longshot, should be among this stalking group, and if she runs to her grass-oriented pedigree off two straight route wins on dirt, Northern Lane will have a genuine chance at scoring an upset in the Double Delta.

Cloudy's Knight to Stars and Stripes

Cloudy's Knight, who looked good winning an overnight stakes at 1 1/2 miles on turf last weekend, will start next on July 3 in the $200,000 Stars and Stripes Handicap, another 12-furlong grass race. The Arlington Million, at 1 1/4 miles, has been mentioned as another goal, should Cloudy's Knight continue moving forward.

Cloudy's Knight came along steadily last year, finishing second in the River Cities Handicap at Churchill to end his season, and was a fast-closing third in his 2005 debut, an overnight stakes at a mile on grass.

Kirby was confident Cloudy's Knight would excel at long-distance turf races, even though he ran somewhat poorly in his lone try over 1 1/2 miles last year. Kirby said Cloudy's Knight's rider that day wasn't strong enough to hold him; the horse pretty much ran off.

"I switched to a ring bit from a D-bit, and I've got a real good rider, Jose Quinones, who's always gotten on him in the morning," Kirby said. "He's done a good job getting the horse to relax."

Which is good, since Cloudy's Knight isn't going to be forced into something he doesn't want to do. At 17 hands and, by Kirby's guess, around 1,300 pounds, Cloudy's Knight is a giant - but an agile, gentle one.

"At 5:30 or 6 every morning he goes to sleep until 8," Kirby said. "Sometimes we have to wake him up to train him."

On another front, Kirby has ceased using the young rider Tim Thornton as his main jockey. Thornton had wintered in New York and rode first-call for Kirby at Hawthorne and the first month of Arlington before being displaced.

"When you get over [to Arlington], there are more jocks over here," Kirby said. "He's a good kid, and a good jock. He tries very hard to please me, but you know, some of the owners want different riders."

Through Thursday, Kirby had gone 4-59 at this meet, Thornton 6-82.

Tisket a Tasket moving on up

Tisket a Tasket swooped from last to first with a huge run on the far turn of Thursday's featured eighth race, and might have run herself into a spot in the Modesty Handicap with her two-length win over second-level allowance foes.

Tisket a Tasket hadn't started since December, but rolled to a visually striking victory by rallying powerfully in the final three-eighths of a mile.

"It could be the Modesty, or it could be a three-other-than allowance," said trainer Mike Stidham. "We'll do what's best for the horse."