01/22/2008 1:00AM

Ginger Punch looks better than ever

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When last seen on the racetrack, Ginger Punch was covered in mud and heading toward the winner's circle after the $2.07 million Breeders' Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park last October. She had just fought off a stretch-long threat from Hystericalady and a late run from Octave to win the richest race of the year for females, a victory that helped her clinch the Eclipse Award title as outstanding older female of 2007.

Fortunately for the sport of racing, it was not the final start of her career. Owner-breeder Frank Stronach has opted to bring Ginger Punch back for another campaign, which starts in Saturday's $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream Park.

Trainer Bobby Frankel said that the three-month break since the Breeders' Cup has changed Ginger Punch, and that her current condition suggests she could have another blockbuster season this year.

"She's looking way better," he said. "She had time to get weight on. At the end of last year, she was pretty light. She's not a big filly, and doesn't carry a whole lot of weight."

A more robust Ginger Punch will be tough to beat as an overwhelming favorite in the Sunshine Millions Distaff, which is for California-breds and Florida-breds over 1 1/8 miles. She will be after her fifth stakes win and can push her career earnings beyond $2 million with a win or a second-place finish.

Frankel is not predicting victory - "There is no such thing as a free pass," he said - but he is amazed that Ginger Punch has made it this far in her career. During the winter of 2006-07, Ginger Punch suffered from lesions in her throat that proved difficult to heal, and she had to undergo a laser procedure to remove them.

"I didn't know if she'd make it back," Frankel said.

At the time, Ginger Punch was a highly promising filly who had won twice after needing four races to beat maidens. She had yet to win a stakes.

A year after that layoff, she was a champion. Through last season, she progressed from sprints to races at 1 1/16 miles or farther, her preferred distances. She won the Grade 2 First Flight at Belmont, the Grade 1 Go for Wand at Saratoga, the Grade 1 Ruffian, and the BC Distaff.

Stronach could have retired Ginger Punch this winter to be bred to a leading stallion. After all, Ginger Punch has won 7 of 14 starts and $1,901,679. Her place in racing history is secure.

Frankel said that Stronach is a sportsman, and not afraid to bring a champion back to the track. As an example, Frankel cites Stronach's management of Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year. Rather than retire Ghostzapper to stud, Stronach kept him in training. He made one start in 2005, winning the Metropolitan Mile Handicap before his career ended because of injury. As a result, Ghostzapper did not go to stud until 2006.

Stronach is the chief executive of Magna Entertainment, which owns Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita and developed the Sunshine Millions series.

Ginger Punch has trained well for her return to racing, Frankel said. The goals for 2008 are similar to last year. Frankel would like to have her ready for the Breeders' Cup Distaff, which will be run at Santa Anita in October.

Surprisingly, Ginger Punch's head win over Hystericalady in the BC Distaff is not Frankel's favorite race from 2007. He was more impressed with her six-length win in the Go for Wand Stakes at Saratoga in July, Ginger Punch's first win at the Grade 1 level. She followed that with a win in the Ruffian and a third, as the even-money favorite, in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes.

"Everything was screwed up," Frankel said of the Beldame loss. "She broke out in hives and nothing went right."

The loss in the Beldame did not prevent Stronach from paying a $180,000 supplemental fee to make Ginger Punch eligible for the BC Distaff.

"We put the money up and took a shot," Frankel said. "I thought she'd be all right."

Sent off at 9-2 in the BC Distaff, Ginger Punch closed from two lengths off the pace to reach contention on the final turn. Then, the fight with Hystericalady began. Ginger Punch led by a head on the final turn, but trailed by that margin in the stretch when soundly bumped by Hystericalady. The two dueled to the finish before Ginger Punch prevailed.

Frankel, who watched the race on television from his Los Angeles home, feared that Ginger Punch would be beaten by a fast-closing Octave, who got within a head and a neck of winning.

Frankel contends that the bumping incident with Hystericalady helped Ginger Punch's chances.

"It seems like she got mad when they banged her into the rail," he said. "She has the heart of a champion. She's tough."