01/24/2008 1:00AM

Champion filly looks hard to beat


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Ginger Punch should cap off a memorable week for owner Frank Stronach and trainer Bobby Frankel when she starts as the overwhelming favorite to win the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream Park. The 1 1/8-mile Distaff shares top billing among the four Sunshine Millions races to be decided at Gulfstream on Saturday, along with the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf.

On Monday, Ginger Punch was voted an Eclipse Award as the outstanding older female horse in 2007. Barring the unforeseen, it is hard to imagine the reigning Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner will not begin the new year with a victory in the Sunshine Millions Distaff, a race restricted to Florida- and California-breds.

Although the Sunshine Millions is Stronach’s brainchild, Frankel said he was never under any pressure to launch the Eclipse champion’s 2008 season in the Distaff.

“Mr. Stronach never suggested anything to me,” said Frankel. “He has confidence in whatever I decide. If I said to retire her, he’d retire her, although as long as she’s doing well we’ll keep her going. The Sunshine Millions just seemed like the most logical spot to bring her back.”

If Ginger Punch didn’t look imposing enough coming into the Distaff, Frankel said she’s currently doing better physically than she was going into the Breeders’ Cup.

“She had a tough year and danced all the dances last season with no breaks since April, but she’s had time to put a little weight on and looks a lot better at the moment than she did on Breeders’ Cup Day,” said Frankel. “She’s doing well, drew a good post, and the horse I was most afraid of, Curiously Sweet, isn’t coming. She should be fine. But you never know in this business.”

Ginger Punch will push her lifetime earnings above the $2 million mark with a win or a second-place finish in the Distaff. Rafael Bejarano, who has been aboard Ginger Punch for all seven of her victories, will also make the trip east from Southern California to keep his regular seat aboard the newly crowned champ.

With Curiously Sweet out, a field of 11 older fillies and mares will line up in the Distaff. Ginger Punch will concede no more than two pounds to her seemingly outclassed and overmatched competition under the allowance conditions of the race.

Bayou’s Lassie, who has proven as versatile as she is talented and consistent, was transferred to trainer Christophe Clement’s barn during the summer. A daughter of Outflanker, she won the Stage Door Betty Handicap and finished second in the Elmer Heubeck over Calder’s main track and was also a game second behind J’ray in the Grade 3 My Charmer Handicap on turf during a seven-week span to close out her 2007 campaign. She figures to race forwardly placed in the Distaff along with Exchanging Fire and Peach Flambe. Regular rider Elvis Trujillo will be aboard.

Todd Pletcher, who also had a pretty good night at Monday’s Eclipse Award ceremonies, will send out the Grade 2 winner Leah’s Secret for the first time in the Distaff. Leah’s Secret was purchased for $525,000 by WinStar Farm at the Fasig-Tipton November selected mixed sale. Although winless in 2007, Leah’s Secret finished second in Pimlico’s Grade 2 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and was third, just a half-length behind second-place Ginger Punch, in Keeneland’s Grade 2 Madison. The Distaff will mark the first time she will have run 1 1/8 miles.

“The filly’s trained very well,” said Pletcher. “We’re not 100 percent sure what her best distance is, whether or not a mile and one-eighth is what she wants. We felt like it was a better option than six furlongs in California. Obviously having the Breeders’ Cup winner in there makes it a tough race, but our filly is training very well.”

Memorette will return to conventional dirt for the first time since June 3, 2006, when she finished fifth in the Grade 2 Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park. She hasn’t won over any surface since capturing the Grade 2 Beverly Hills Handicap on the Hollywood turf course three weeks later.

Win or lose, the Sunshine Distaff will be Memorette’s final start. She is booked to be bred to Empire Maker later this season.

– additional reporting by David Grening