01/18/2009 12:00AM

Fresh start for Country Star

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Country Star has a reputation to restore in 2009. The year figures to be better than the debacle of 2008.

An early Kentucky Oaks favorite, Country Star was always under a cloud, with setbacks that ranged from an entrapped epiglottis to a minor illness that delayed her spring return. Trainer Bobby Frankel basically ran out of time to prepare her for the Oaks.

Frankel admits he rushed her for the Ashland Stakes on April 5 at Keeneland and, he said, "then I rushed her for the Oaks."

Country Star finished fifth and sixth in those two races and barely resembled the filly that won successive Grade 1's as a 2-year-old.

"It didn't work out, so I slowed down and got her ready for fall," Frankel said.

But after winning a Saratoga allowance, she had more bad luck. Entered in the Grade 1 Gazelle on Sept. 13 at Belmont - "I loved her that day," Frankel said - Country Star flipped in the gate, suffered cuts on her legs and stomach that required stitches, and scratched.

The forgettable year over and finished, Country Star returns Sunday at Santa Anita in the Grade 2 El Encino Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race for 4-year-old fillies that will be her first start since August.

Will she fire first start back?

"I think so," Frankel said. "She's been working very good, she worked great the other day."

Country Star, 3 for 6 overall, including Grade 1 wins in the Aclibiades and Hollywood Starlet, is one of 12 that entered the El Encino.

The main rival for Country Star is Ginger Pop, runner-up in the Grade 1 La Brea on Dec. 27. The seven-furlong La Brea was the first start for Ginger Pop since she bruised a heel in the Del Mar Oaks, a setback that required a six-week recovery.

Ginger Pop "loves this track," trainer Dan Hendricks said, referring to the Pro-Ride surface. The 2-for-7 daughter of El Prado has trained super since that comeback, and with a current-racing edge she is expected to provide the main competition for Country Star.

Foxy Danseur stretches to two turns and has a look, while Grade 2-placed Life Is Sweet runs for the first time since May.

European import Step Softly arrived Tuesday from France, will be released from quarantine Saturday, and will get her first feel for the Santa Anita surface Sunday morning. After winning a 14-horse allowance race last month, Step Softly looms the upsetter.