04/03/2008 12:00AM

Ginger Punch figures tough to beat

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Ginger Punch, the champion older female of 2007, will have a class and pace advantage Saturday when she returns to Grade 1 company for the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

The 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares will share a card with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. The rich double opens the 35th annual Racing Festival of the South, when 11 stakes worth $2.8 million will be run over the final six dates of the meet.

Ginger Punch, 5, will be a strong favorite when she begins her 2008 campaign in earnest after winning the $500,000 Sunshine Millions, a race restricted to horses bred in Florida or California, at Gulfstream Park in her last start Jan. 26. She is the latest champion to make an appearance in the Apple Blossom, which in the past has been won by such top-class mares as Azeri, Paseana, and Bayakoa.

Ginger Punch went 5 for 8 and earned $1.8 million during her championship season, which was highlighted by wins in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff and the Grade 1 Go for Wand and Ruffian handicaps in New York. Her connections decided to keep her in training for 2008.

"She's a nice, sound filly and she's at the top of her game," said Bobby Frankel, who trains Ginger Punch for Stronach Stables.

That was evident in the Sunshine Millions. Ginger Punch stalked the pace, then drew out to a 6 3/4-length win in what was her first start since the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 27. She equaled her career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 104 in the Sunshine Millions.

"I thought she ran well," Frankel said. "She won easy enough. She tries hard every time, so I'm not surprised at her at all."

Ginger Punch is the 122-pound highweight Saturday and will spot her rivals between 6 and 12 pounds. The biggest threats to her are closers Zenyatta and Kettleoneup, each weighted at 116. Ginger Punch will break from the rail under Ramon Dominguez.

"If there's no pace, she can go to the lead," Frankel said of Ginger Punch. "If there's pace, she can track. She's an ideal filly to train. She adjusts to any circumstances."

Zenyatta is making her Grade 1 and conventional dirt debut. Undefeated in three starts, she gives up experience to her rivals. However, what she lacks there she makes up for in physical stature. A 4-year-old filly, Zenyatta weighs close to 1,200 pounds, according to trainer John Shirreffs.

"She's a big girl," he said. "She's tall and if you look at her from behind, she's real wide behind."

It is a behind the competition has seen a lot of this winter in Southern California. Zenyatta began her career at Hollywood Park in November, winning a maiden special weight over Carmel Coffee, who is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Premium Tap. Zenyatta then took a first-level allowance in December, defeating Grade 1-placed Down. The move to graded stakes competition came next, and Zenyatta answered the call in the El Encino with a 1 3/4-length win over Grade 1 winners Tough Tiz's Sis and Romance Is Diane.

"This one reminds us so much in a way of Sardula, big and just all racehorse," said Jerry Moss, who with his wife, Ann, owns Zenyatta and raced 1994 Kentucky Oaks winner Sardula. "She just seems to get things done kind of easily."

Mike Smith has the mount on Zenyatta, from post 6.

"She's big, and it takes a while for her to get going, so she's usually toward the back of the pack and then she'll just start making her move," Shirreffs said.

Grade 2 winner Kettleoneup also will be motoring late for trainer Mike Tomlinson and jockey Calvin Borel.

The forecast calls for clear skies and temperatures in the low 70s, setting the stage for Oaklawn to draw an ontrack crowd of about 25,000.