01/28/2005 1:00AM

Ghostzapper's best may be yet to come


Only two days after Monday night's Eclipse Awards, trainer Bobby Frankel had left his home in California for Florida to see Ghostzapper, the newly crowned Horse of the Year and older male champion of 2004, who is training at Palm Meadows. Frankel's enthusiasm was practically bursting through the telephone.

"I'm telling you, he looks great," Frankel said. "If he stays like this the rest of the year, he's going to do great."

It would be a heck of an encore.

In 2004, won all four of his starts, including the Breeders' Cup Classic, to wrest Horse of the Year from early-season sensation Smarty Jones. Unlike Smarty Jones, who was whisked off to stud despite being a year younger, Ghostzapper is remaining in training at age 5, giving fans a chance to further appreciate a horse who Frankel said "could be one of the greats of all time."

He was the best in 2004. Eclipse Award voters preferred Ghostzapper over Smarty Jones by 174-95 for Horse of the Year. Ghostzapper was an overwhelming choice as champion older horse, 269-4, over Dubai World Cup winner Pleasantly Perfect, with one vote going to Roses in May, the Whitney Handicap winner.

Frank Stronach, whose Adena Springs Farm won the Eclipse Award as champion breeder, bred and owns Ghostzapper, a son of Awesome Again and the Relaunch mare Baby Zip.

"People want to knock Stronach, but when you consider the money he's putting up in insurance to keep this horse in training, he's already behind the eight ball," Frankel said. "How many people would do that? He probably could have gotten $100,000 per breeding for 125 mares, but he's a sportsman."

Ghostzapper showed flashes of brilliance from his first race, a nine-length victory in November 2002 against maidens at Hollywood Park. At age 3, Ghostzapper raced just four times, but he completed his season with a victory against older horses in the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes.

"The Vosburgh was when he showed me he was a very, very good horse," Frankel said.

That set the stage for a tour de force in 2004, but Ghostzapper's return was delayed by a quarter crack. Instead of racing him in the spring in races like the Carter Handicap and Metropolitan Mile, Frankel waited until July 4, and Ghostzapper provided the fireworks.

With regular rider Javier Castellano aboard, Ghostzapper effortlessly cruised past three rivals to win Belmont Park's Tom Fool Handicap by 4 1/4 lengths. That was the seventh start of his career, all in sprints. Frankel had said for months that he thought Ghostzapper would stretch out, even though he is a half-brother to the crack sprinter City Zip. Now was the time to prove it.

"He had never really trained good until last year," Frankel said. "He was a lazy type, kind of a clumsy horse. I think it had something to do with his ankles. They were a little immature. That's why he had time off from 2 to 3. He had finished his 3-year-old year sprinting in the Vosburgh. I thought the best thing to do was start off last year in a sprint. The Tom Fool was obvious. Then stretch him out."

Ghostzapper's first race around two turns was in the Iselin Breeders' Cup Handicap at Monmouth Park. All Ghostzapper did was earn the highest Beyer Speed Figure of the year, a 128, winning the 1 1/8-mile race by nearly 11 lengths.

"I try not to be like everyone after a horse stretches out and say I knew it, but I did," Frankel said. "He was always finishing in his sprints. He's an easy horse to ride. The reason he came from so far back in sprints is because he doesn't like getting dirt in his face. He'd drop back and come around."

In longer races, though, Ghostzapper got into the mix much earlier. In the Woodward Stakes at Belmont on Sept. 11, Ghostzapper engaged in a thrilling duel with Saint Liam. Despite Saint Liam's leaning on him for the final quarter-mile, Ghostzapper still kept his neck in front.

Frankel said that Ghostzapper was adding speed and becoming more aggressive in his works, which suggests that he has matured and grown sounder as he has aged.

He is certainly grown up now, a fact that Ghostzapper rammed home emphatically in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park. Facing a field that included Pleasantly Perfect and Roses in May, as well as the champion mare Azeri and Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone, Ghostzapper crushed his 12 rivals, winning by three lengths and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 124. He completed the final quarter-mile of the 1 1/4-mile race in less than 24 seconds.

After a vacation of about "six or seven weeks," Frankel said, Ghostzapper is back in serious training for a return this spring, possibly in the Oaklawn Handicap on April 9.