05/05/2004 11:00PM

Need a challenge? Find winner of Hilltop


How well does good recent turf form in races run in Kentucky and Florida translate to Maryland?

Any handicapper who can to answer that question will have a tremendous edge in finding the likely winner of Saturday's $50,000 Hilltop Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile grass race for 3-year-old fillies at Pimlico.

Four of the prime contenders in the Hilltop exit a win or a good effort on the turf at either Keeneland or Gulfstream Park. But since four fillies will be making their turf debut, and all but two members of the 11-horse main body of the field have never raced over the local grass course, the Hilltop poses complex problems. Handicappers looking for some semblance of order may prefer to compare recent races from the same circuit and same surface as Saturday's race.

Amid the chaos, these facts stand out:

* Western Ransom, who grudgingly surrendered the lead in deep stretch of the one-mile Appalachian Stakes at Keeneland, earned a 91 Beyer Speed Figure, by far the best last-out number in the Hilltop field. Her near-miss in that race, combined with the reputation of her trainer, Michael Dickinson, ensure she will be a short price.

* Honey Ryder, part of trainer Todd Pletcher's potent stable, also comes out of the April 14 Appalachian, where she finished third. Her head loss to Vous in last fall's Hollywood Wildcat at Calder and close third behind Lucifer's Stone in the Grade 3 Herecomesthebride at Gulfstream make her a serious contender here.

* Earthquake Ride and High Speed Access both rise in class after each won her last start at Gulfstream. For those who rely heavily on trainer patterns, it's worth noting these two stats: Joe Orseno, Earthquake Ride's trainer, is only 1 for 20 in turf stakes the past three seasons. Trainer Erik Juvonen is 0 for 17 with runners, such as High Speed Access, who are making the second start off a lengthy layoff.

Two fillies who prepped at Pimlico before the Hilltop pose intriguing alternatives to the runners with the best recent turf form.

Art Fan, beaten less than two lengths in last fall's Miss Grillo Stakes at Belmont, made up six lengths in the stretch of a five-furlong turf sprint two weeks ago, her first start in six months. Her trainer, Hamilton Smith, excels with horses moving from sprints to routes.

He Loves Me has won her last two starts, both in Maryland stakes races run on dirt, for trainer Dickie Small. The 122-pound highweight, He Loves Me won her only previous try on the grass, at Fair Grounds last December.