03/31/2005 12:00AM

Quest Star goes for Pan Am triple

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Not too long ago, the Pan American Handicap was a stand-alone event, a race that always validated its Grade 1 ranking as a major early-season target for the best grass horses on the East Coast.

But just as Gulfstream Park itself is undergoing a major remodeling, the Pan American also has evolved into something a little different. Now a Grade 2 race with a $150,000 purse, the Pan Am has been folded into the shadow of the Florida Derby, a mere subplot amid a blur of stakes races. Not surprisingly, the field for the 44th running here Saturday is a far cry from the first-class horseflesh the race formerly attracted.

This is not to say the race won't be alluring to horseplayers. A field of eight older horses was entered in the 1 1/2-mile turf race, and among the contenders is the two-time defending champion, , who enters off a 10th-place finish in his seasonal debut, the March 6 Gulfstream Breeders' Cup. Quest Star drew the outside post with Edgar Prado, the leading jockey at the three-month-old Gulf meet, named to ride.

"I was hoping he would run a little better than he did that day," said trainer Elliott Walden of the Gulfstream BC. "But last year he got beat in the same race, then won the Pan American in his second start of the year.

"He's trained well since his last race," said Walden, who also noted Quest Star's 3-for-5 record over the course. "He had a nice work a few days ago at Payson, and he's got Prado on him. I think he's got a good shot."

Quest Star, who has earned nearly $800,000, figures to be on or near the early pace in the Pan Am, which goes as the 10th of 13 races. Other likely pace factors include Navesink River and Deputy Lad.

Gigli, trained by Bobby Frankel, is the 116-pound highweight and probable favorite under jockey Jerry Bailey. Gigli closed stoutly in his latest start to narrowly miss catching Prince Arch in the Gulfstream BC.

The rest of the Pan Am field is Art Variety, European, Stage Call, and Scooter Roach.

The Pan Am's sister race, the Orchid Handicap for fillies and mares, once also was a standout entity on the Gulf stakes schedule. But the Orchid, also a Grade 2, $150,000 race at 1 1/2 miles on the grass, has also been assimilated into the Florida Derby program, and its field seems to be somewhat lacking in comparison to prior years.

Nonetheless, the Orchid (race 7) shapes up as a well-matched race that should draw spirited action. Snowdrops, with Prado riding for trainer Christophe Clement, could be a slight favorite over Honey Ryder and Briviesca, the one-two finishers in the March 6 The Very One Handicap.

Snowdrops, a stretch-running gray mare, won the Grade 3 Suwannee River two starts back before disappointing as the odds-on favorite on the March 19 Tampa Bay Derby undercard. In all, the English-bred mare has won 7 of 17 starts and nearly $325,000.

Honey Ryder, trained by Todd Pletcher, has been improving steadily in recent months, with her The Very One victory earning her a lifetime-high Beyer Speed Figure of 98. John Velazquez, who rode Honey Ryder in The Very One, will be back aboard Saturday.

Briviesca, a British-bred by way of France, is winless in three starts in the U.S. but figures very much a threat after being narrowly beaten in two starts at this meet. Bailey has the mount for trainer Bill Mott.

Also entered are Coquinerie, Stormin' Daina, Pretty Jane, and Ellieonthemarch.