07/05/2007 12:00AM

Top-rank rematch in United Nations

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The final jumps of the Manhattan Handicap were intensely dramatic, as Better Talk Now beat English Channel by a head on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The rematch comes Saturday in the Grade 1, $750,000 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park.

Between them, Better Talk Now and English Channel have won eight Grade 1 races, including the last two runnings of the United Nations. Better Talk Now captured the 2005 edition followed by English Channel last year.

This year's United Nations gets a fresh, intriguing newcomer: the 6-year-old mare Honey Ryder, who thrives at the stake's 1 3/8-mile distance. Honey Ryder's trainer, Todd Pletcher, gained recent notoriety by beating males in the Belmont Stakes with the filly Rags to Riches.

Embossed, the winner of the Gradeo3 Dallas Turf Cup Handicap at Lone Star Park, and Fri Guy complete the five-horse field.

The United Nations and Haskell Invitational are the only two Grade 1 stakes run at Monmouth annually. This year they will be joined by the Breeders' Cup races in late October.

Although Pletcher trains both English Channel and Honey Ryder, they will race as separate betting interests. Pletcher has named John Velazquez aboard the 5-year-old English Channel, a winner of 10 of 19 starts and $2.7 million, and Garrett Gomez on Honey Ryder.

With so few runners, the race lacks early speed. Fri Guy could be the pacesetter, a role he played in Florida stakes over the winter. Or the pacesetter might be English Channel, who prefers the role of close-up stalker.

"My biggest concern about the race is, with such a short field, I don't know how the race is going to unfold," Pletcher said. "None of them really wants to be on the lead; it's going to be a paceless race. English Channel might be there by default."

A slow crawl by the leader could be trouble for a closer like Embossed.

"He's better off being three or four lengths back," said Niall O'Callaghan, Embossed's trainer. "He lets himself get too far back sometimes. I wouldn't imagine the pace being too fast. This could be a disaster of a pace."

Pace was a major concern for Better Talk Now in his younger days. The 8-year-old has learned to relax as he matured and no longer needs Shake the Bank acting as a rabbit to prompt the pace.

"He is much more relaxed now than he ever was," said trainer H. Graham Motion. "He was his own worst enemy early on in his career. He used to get quite keen and awkward in his races, almost unmanageable, if there was no pace. He really seems to have settled down this year and I couldn't be happier with how he was at Belmont."

Better Talk Now, a winner of 14 of 39 starts and more than $3.8 million, will have his regular rider, Ramon Dominguez, aboard.

Pletcher was clearly happy with the way Honey Ryder bounced back to win the Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park on May 26. It was her first race since finishing 11th, one spot better than English Channel, in the Dubai Sheema Classic on March 31.

"I though it was good," Pletcher said of the Sheepshead Bay. "She's come back from Dubai well and acts like she's in as good form as ever."

This will be the third time in the last four races that Honey Ryder will be facing males. She missed by only a neck to Jambalaya in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Stakes.

"In most of the filly and mare turf races beyond a mile and a quarter, the purses aren't very good, not like they are for the older horses," Pletcher said. "She showed at Gulfstream she could be competitive against the colts."

The distance also helps. Honey Ryder is 6-1-1 in 9 races at 1 3/8 miles on the turf. Class is not an issue as Honey Ryder is a two-time Grade 1 winner of more than $2.1 million.

"She adds a lot of interest to the race," Motion said. "She's a tremendous mare. I've seen plenty of her while racing Film Maker and would just as soon not see her again. This must be Todd's new angle, running the fillies against the boys."

Pomme Frites takes a drop

Pommes Frites set the pace in the Grade 3 Eatontown Stakes here on June 16 before finishing fifth. She gets an easier assignment Saturday after four straight graded races in the $60,000 Lighthouse Stakes for fillies and mares at one mile on the turf.

Wild Chick, ninth in her season debut, should be sharper in this spot.

"She really needed that start," said trainer Ben Perkins Jr.

* Perkins bids for a stakes double with Wild Jam in the $65,000 Mr. Prospector at six furlongs. Wild Jam was second by a nose last time out in the Longfellow Stakes.

- additional reporting by David Grening