05/24/2007 12:00AM

Honey Ryder in sweet spot


ELMONT, N.Y. - Heading into last year's $150,000 Sheepshead Bay Handicap, Honey Ryder appeared a risky proposition given her 0-for-5 record over Belmont Park's turf course and an apparent lack of pace in the race.

Honey Ryder overcame a pedestrian pace to take the Grade 2 stakes by one length. She since has added the Grade 1 Flower Bowl Invitational over this course to her resume. Now, entering Saturday's 49th renewal of the Sheepshead Bay, Honey Ryder looms a very tough favorite in a nine-horse field where stablemate Safari Queen may be her sternest competitor.

The Sheepshead Bay, run at 1 3/8 miles over the Widener turf course, will be Honey Ryder's third start of the year, her first against her own gender. She was beaten a neck by Jambalaya in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap before finishing 11th in the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic.

"Nothing really went well in the Dubai race at any stage," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "She broke and Garrett [Gomez] lost his iron. He had to drop his hands to get his foot back in the stirrup; she got a little bit of a jump-start on him. He tried to get her covered up from that point on, but he never could."

Pletcher added that the horse to Honey Ryder's inside kept bumping into her, carrying her out.

Pletcher will take the blinkers off Honey Ryder for the Sheepshead Bay. Gomez will ride Honey Ryder, the 123-pound highweight, from post 5.

Safari Queen, a 5-year-old daughter of Lode, has won 4 of her last 5 starts - all in races at 11 or 12 furlongs. She comes off wins in the Grade 2 Orchid Handicap at Gulfstream and the Grade 3 Bewitch at Keeneland.

"I think she's found her niche in these marathon races," Pletcher said. "I hate to have to run the two of them together, but there aren't many mile-and-three-eighth opportunities."

John Velazquez rides Safari Queen from post 7 under 119 pounds.

La Dolce Vita ran third behind Safari Queen in the Orchid before coming back to win the Hollywood Wildcat Breeders' Cup at Calder, her first win outside of Gulfstream Park.

"We want to find out if she's going to be able to handle these kind of races," trainer Mark Hennig said. "Right now she seems like she's doing very well."

Factual Contender, trained by Barclay Tagg, looms the one to catch. Barancella, beaten less than a length when third in this race in 2005, is another with an upset chance.