05/24/2006 11:00PM

Honey Ryder shaky favorite

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Honey Ryder, winner in 6 of her last 9 starts in stakes, is the one to beat in the Sheepshead Bay.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Honey Ryder is certainly the horse to beat in Saturday's $150,000 Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park, but there are a couple of reasons that handicappers may want to play against her.

First, Honey Ryder is 0 for 5 on Belmont's turf. Second, in a race lacking speed, Honey Ryder may find herself pressing a slow pace, something that proved her undoing when she finished fifth as the favorite in this race last year. Finally, she meets a quality field that includes proven marathoners Asi Siempre, Angara, Latice, and Noble Stella.

, trained by Todd Pletcher, drew the rail and will be the 121-pound highweight in the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay, scheduled for 1 3/8 miles on the Widener turf.

In the last 14 months, Honey Ryder has won 6 of 9 stakes attempts, including the Group 1 E.P. Taylor at Woodbine. Her lone bad performance in that span came in last year's Sheepshead Bay, when she weakened to fifth after pressing the pace. She enters this race off a career-best performance in the Grade 3 Orchid Handicap, a race she won by four lengths.

"It's a concern that Belmont has not been her best venue,'' said Pletcher, who trains Honey Ryder for Glencrest Farm. "The spacing of this race is such it was a good spot. I think she might be a better filly than when she ran in the Sheepshead Bay last year. This will tell us whether we want to come back in the New York Handicap or go out of town.''

Pletcher said the key to Honey Ryder's recent success is getting her to relax willingly.

"One of the reasons I felt the Orchid was the best race she ever ran was she rated really kindly even though they weren't fast fractions," Pletcher said. "We don't want to be on the lead. She can be laying close, but preferably not on the lead.''

finished third to Honey Ryder in the Orchid, then came back with a front-running score in the Grade 3 Bewitch Handicap at Keeneland on April 26. That day, Noble Stella dictated the pace through pedestrian fractions and had enough to hold off a late run from Louve Royale. Trainer Roger Attfield wasn't necessarily targeting the Sheepshead Bay, but believes his mare is doing too well to pass it up.

"I didn't particularly want to chase [Honey Ryder] around the countryside, but it's a race that fits well into our program, we're doing well, so I thought we'd give it a shot,'' Attfield said.

Mike Smith, who has won this race four times, has the call.

After beginning her career in Europe, won 2 of 3 starts last year in North America, including the Grade 3 Valley View at Keeneland. In her 4-year-old debut, Asi Siempre finished second in the Grade 2 Jenny Wiley. She hopped in the air at the start and was forced to go five wide turning for home. Still, she closed well to be second behind Wend, beaten 1 1/2 lengths.

"We were very happy with her race,'' said trainer Patrick Biancone, who removes the blinkers from Asi Siempre's equipment. "It was her first race against older horses and she was coming off a long layoff.''

, who is 0 for 5 at Belmont, finished second in this race a year ago when she was shut off in upper stretch. She comes in off a sixth-place finish in the Grade 3 Beaugay, a race she probably needed, having not raced in six months.

, who finished second to Honey Ryder in last year's E.P. Taylor, stretches out to a marathon distance after winning a one-mile classified allowance race.