The multiple graded stakes winner Honey Ryder shook off a zero-for-five record on the Belmont Park turf to capture Saturday's $150,000 Sheepshead Bay Handicap (gr. IIT) for fillies and mares in smart fashion under Garrett Gomez.
Gomez kept the favorite tucked on the inside of the tightly bunched field while stalking the pace in third place before letting the 5-year-old gray mare loose in the stretch. She collared the pacesetter Noble Stella in mid-stretch and edged away in the final yards of the 1 3/8-mile test to win by one length. The final time was 2:12 4/5 on a firm course.
Noble Stella, ridden by Mike Smith, held on stubbornly for second by a neck over Angara, who was perfectly poised for a late charge at the winner but had to settle for third under Edgar Prado.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Honey Ryder made it back-to-back wins in 2006 for owner Glencrest Farm. She captured the 1 1/2-mile Orchid Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream Park by four lengths in her last start April 1. She has now won four of five tries at the 11-furlong distance. She capped a 2005 season in which she won five of seven with a half-length victory in the 1 1/4-mile E.P. Taylor Stakes (Can-I) at Woodbine in October.
In fact, about the only knock on the daughter of Lasting Approval was her lack of affinity for Belmont's lawn. She ran fifth in the 2005 Sheephead Bay, her worst effort of the year, but is clearly an even better horse now.
"The difference between this year and last year and that she was covered up and inside this time," said Pletcher. "Last year, she was never able to relax."
Pletcher said Honey Ryder could next return to Delaware Park for the $250,000 Robert G. Dick Memorial July 15, a race she won last year, or could try the $750,000 United Nations Handicap (gr. IT) at 1 3/8 miles at Monmouth Park on July 8.
Breaking from the rail post position, Honey Ryder settled in behind Latice, who broke best, and the German-bred Noble Stella, who soon took over and made an easy lead through leisurely fractions of :24 3/5, :50, 1:14 2/5 and 1:38 2/5. Noble Stella, a 14-1 shot, had used similar tactics in going gate to wire to win Keenland's Bewitch (gr. IIIT) in her last start. When she edged away from Latice on the final turn with plenty left in the tank, it looked like she might be able to do it again. However, Honey Ryder responded when asked coming off the turn and angled out slightly through a gap in upper stretch to soon tackle Noble Stella, who battled back gamely through the lane as Angora loomed up on the outside.
Gomez said he was concerned that Honey Ryder would not have an opportunity while stuck on the rail behind a dawdling pace.
"The difference between a decent filly and a good filly is the way she ran today," Gomez said. "The one time I really needed her, she was there. I needed her to get up in the hole, and she did it. That's the sign of a good filly. After she made the front, I knew she would let no one by."
Honey Ryder, who was bred in Kentucky by Wimborne Farm Inc, is out of the Affirmed mare Cuando Quiere. She won for the 10th time in 23 lifetime starts while boosting her earnings to $1,245,810.
She paid $4.80, $3.50 and $2.50. Noble Stella returned $9.80 and $4.50. The English-bred Angara was $3.70 to show.
Asi Siempre, the 2-1 second choice in the field of seven, hopped in the air at the start and trailed through the opening mile. She came on wide in the stretch but encountered traffic problems while finishing fourth, nearly 5 1/2 lengths behind Honey Ryder. Serendipitous, Latice and Tisket a Tasket trailed. Half Heaven scratched.