03/07/2003 12:00AM

Vesta makes return in Safely Kept

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Vesta, who last year wont the Grade 3 Ms. Preakness and the Smart Halo at Pimlico, returns to the races in Sunday's $60,000 Safely Kept at Aqueduct.

Vesta, who is owned by Five K Farm, meets eight other fillies and mares in the six-furlong Safely Kept.

After finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Prioress on July 6, Vesta was diagnosed with knee chips and underwent surgery. Vesta, a daughter of Fortunate Prospect, spent a few months on a Florida farm recuperating before returning to trainer Joe Aquilino's Aqueduct barn in late October.

Aquilino said the winter's unpredictable weather - snow, ice, and rain - slightly compromised his training of Vesta.

"I probably would have liked to get another work in her," Aquilino said. "But she looks to be doing fine and there really weren't many options for her before this because she is not eligible for much."

Vesta fired off four consecutive bullet works during February over the inner track, where she won two races by a combined margin of 9 3/4 lengths at the 2001-2002 meet.

C.C. Lopez will ride Vesta for the first time. She drew post 3.

"I think [Lopez] will fit her good because she is a speed-type and that's his style of riding," Aquilino said.

The Safely Kept is not lacking in speed horses. Hongkong Charley and Golden Made, who drew the outside posts, 8 and 9, respectively, have early speed.

Javier Contreras, who trains Hongkong Charley, a winner of her last three starts in optional claimers at Laurel Park, said the 6-year-old is better when she is not used early.

"I'd like her off the pace a little bit," Contreras said. "She's usually a filly that is hard to keep on top of her game, but all of a sudden she is putting it together. I guess she is maturing late."

Golden Made finished third after blazing through a half-mile in 44.95 seconds while under pressure in her last start on Feb. 21. When Golden Made can shake loose early - like she did when she won an allowance race on the inner track on Jan. 17 - she is tough to catch.

A.P. Andie was in poor form before winning the Correction here on Feb. 1 when the rail opened up and she beat the favored Shawklit Mint by 1 1/4 lengths. Saskya and Bonefide Reason would be aided by a fast pace.

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