(edited press release)
Following a non-effort in the March 31 Dubai Sheema Classic (UAE-I), Glencrest Farm’s Honey Ryder returns to America looking to repeat last year’s win in the $150,000 Sheepshead Bay Handicap (gr. IIT) at Belmont Park Saturday afternoon.
Based on her strong form in 2006 and a near miss against males in the Gulfstream Park Breeders’ Cup Stakes (gr. IT) to start off this year, Honey Ryder will be the 123-pound highweight in the Sheepshead Bay under Garrett Gomez, spotting between four and 10 pounds to her rivals. The 6-year-old daughter of Lasting Approval has turned in three published works since returning from Dubai, where she finished 11th of 14 in the Sheema Classic.
“She’s trained very well since coming back,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “She really never got on track last time.”
Pletcher is hoping that Honey Ryder can duplicate her 2006 campaign in which she won the Sheepshead Bay and two other stakes, including the Flower Bowl Invitational (gr. IT) last fall. She finished off last year running a good third in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), beaten 2 ½ lengths by champion Ouija Board.
“We’re going to hit a lot of the same spots we did last year, more or less,” said Pletcher, who will also send out Arindel Farm’s Safari Queen and figures to have the top two favorites in the race.
Safari Queen comes off consecutive wins at a mile and a half, taking the Orchid Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream Park and the Bewitch Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland. Pletcher did not ask her to run marathon distances until she won the Long Island Handicap (gr. IIT) last November at Aqueduct.
“We had a hunch watching her train that these kinds of races would fit her well,” Pletcher said. “I hate to run two nice mares like this against each other, but the options are limited this time of year.”
A pace threat to Honey Ryder and Safari Queen is Thomas Farone’s Factual Contender, a much-improved 6-year-old mare since she was switched to the turf for trainer Barclay Tagg. Factual Contender was moved to Tagg’s barn in the fall of last year after two failed efforts on the dirt. Tagg and assistant Robin Smullen quickly realized some untapped potential.
“She had a pretty ordinary record and they had tried her on everything but turf,” Tagg said. “Robin got off her one morning and said she thought she’d like the turf.”
Factual Contender sprung a 25-1 upset in a Calder allowance race before running two credible efforts in stakes at Gulfstream. Most recently, she wired an overnight stakes field at Belmont going a mile and a quarter.
“She’s been nice and relaxed going long on the grass,” Tagg said. “It started out just as an experiment.”
Gary Zwerling’s La Dolce Vita has won two of her last three starts with her only recent loss a 2 ½-length defeat to Safari Queen in the Orchid. With a mare that has done most of her running in shorter turf races, trainer Mark Hennig is optimistic about Saturday’s race.
“We were experimenting in the Orchid because she loves Gulfstream,” Hennig said. “We wanted to figure out if she would like that kind of distance and there was no place for her better to figure that out than at Gulfstream. We felt that she ran pretty well that day and warranted giving her another chance minus an eighth of a mile.”
Another victim of Safari Queen’s strong run of late is Gary Tanaka’s Barancella, who was defeated by Safari Queen on the dirt in Calder’s La Prevoyante Handicap (gr. IIT) and on the grass in the Bewitch. Trained by Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, Barancella missed by three-quarters of a length in the 2005 edition of the Sheepshead Bay.
Cliffrose, Moon Dolly, Hostess, and Wait It Out round out the field.
Sheepshead Bay Handicap (gr. IIT, Race 8, Approximate post 4:45 p.m.), $150,000 for Fillies & Mares 3 & Up, 1 3/8 miles on the turf
1. Cliffrose, Cornelio Velasquez 114
2. La Dolce Vita, Edgar Prado 115
3. Moon Dolly, Alan Garcia 113
4. Hostess, Channing Hill 113
5. Honey Ryder, Garrett Gomez 123
6. Factual Contender, Eibar Coa 115
7. Safari Queen, John Velazquez 119
8. Barancella, Javier Castellano 117
9. Wait It Out, Jean-Luc Samyn 113