05/29/2002 11:00PM

Monkey's off Sweetest Thing's back

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ELMONT, N.Y. - When Sweetest Thing romped to a 3 1/2-length victory in the Grade 3 Bewitch Stakes at Keeneland in April, trainer and part owner Roger Attfield let out a sigh of relief that shook the grandstand.

The victory ended a string of frustrating second- and third-place finishes and was the first graded-stakes triumph for Sweetest Thing, a 4-year-old Canadian-bred daughter of Candy Stripes.

Saturday, Sweetest Thing will look to build on that success when she heads a field of 10 fillies and mares entered in the $150,000, Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park. Sweetest Thing will carry co-highweight of 119 pounds under Mark Guidry and will break from post 2.

The last time Sweetest Thing raced in New York, she finished a game second behind Queue in the Long Island Handicap at Aqueduct. Following that, Sweetest Thing finished second, beaten a neck, in the La Prevoyante at Calder, third in the Very One Handicap, and second, beaten another neck, in the Orchid before winning the Bewitch.

The common thread in those marathon races may have been a premature move toward the front, according to Attfield. Despite a slow pace in the Bewitch, Guidry was able to keep Sweetest Thing well off the pace before exploding through the stretch.

"She's a very ratable filly with a high cruising speed," Attfield said. "I think she has run better when she has horses to run at."

Sweetest Thing has caught an unaccomplished field in the 44th Sheepshead Bay, no other horse in it having won a graded stakes on turf. Critical Eye, who won last year's Sheepshead Bay when it was rained off to the main track, and Tweedside are Grade 1 winners on dirt.

Critical Eye is a two-time winner over Belmont turf, but not against quality competition. Tweedside ran fourth in the Bewitch after setting the early pace. Trainer Todd Pletcher said he would like to see jockey John Velazquez take her off the pace Saturday.

Mot Juste might loom the main threat to Sweetest Thing. She drops into a Grade 3 after running in six consecutive Group 1 races. As a 3-year-old, Mot Juste ran fourth in the English Oaks and second, beaten a neck by Lailani, in the Irish Oaks. She pressed the pace and finished last in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

Golden Corona, who finished second behind Voodoo Dancer in the Grade 3 Beaugay Handicap, and Refugee, third in the Orchid Handicap, are longshot possibilities.

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