03/31/2008 12:00AM

Hystericalady will skip Apple Blossom

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Ginger Punch's odds just dropped. The champion will be an even stronger favorite Saturday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park with the Monday defection of one of her chief rivals, Hystericalady.

The Apple Blossom was expected to be a rematch of last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff, in which Ginger Punch won by a neck over Hystericalady. But on Monday, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said Hystericalady will pass on the Apple Blossom. The mare had traveled from her California base to Oaklawn last month and won the local prep, the Grade 3 Azeri.

"I'm not going to run Hystericalady," Hollendorfer said. "I just think to fly out and make another trip that everything has to be 100 percent-plus, and we had a couple little problems this week, nothing real significant. It's just not the right time to fly back there again, so we're going to wait for another race."

Hollendorfer said Hystericalady would likely be pointed for the Gradeo1 Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs in May. She won the race in 2007.

Ginger Punch is the 122-pound highweight in the 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom, which will share a card with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. The rich stakes double opens the 35th annual Racing Festival of the South, when 11 stakes worth a cumulative $2.8 million are run over the final six dates of the meet at Oaklawn.

As of Monday, Ginger Punch was one of five expected for the Apple Blossom, the lone Grade 1 stakes in the Southwest region. Zenyatta, an undefeated filly who in her last start won the Grade 2 El Encino on Jan. 13, is being pointed for the race, trainer John Shirreffs said Monday. She is weighted at 116 and will be ridden by Mike Smith.

Kettleoneup, an Oaklawn-based mare who won the Grade 2 Falls City last year at Churchill Downs, is also weighted at 116. She was to have her final breeze for the Apple Blossom on Tuesday, trainer Mike Tomlinson said. Nice Inheritance, at 112, is also expected, according to Oaklawn stakes coordinator Craig Lytel. Among those considered possible are Brownie Points, 114.

California influence at Oaklawn

The Oaklawn Handicap had a potential field of nine starters as of Monday, and four of them are coming in from California. Heatseeker, Circular Quay, Tiago, and Buzzards Bay are all scheduled to fly into Hot Springs early Wednesday.

Heatseeker is highweighted at 119 pounds off his win in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap. Rafael Bejarano has the mount, said Hollendorfer, who trains Heatseeker. Circular Quay is weighted at 117 following his win in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap. Tiago is in at 117, and will be ridden by Smith, Shirreffs said. Buzzards Bay, who won the Oaklawn Handicap in 2006, is weighted at 116.

Others that Lytel considers probable are Fairbanks, 115, and Jonesboro, 115. He said the possibles include Reporting for Duty, 113; Silver Lord, 113; and Encaustic, 111.

Entries for the Apple Blossom and the Oaklawn, at 1 1/8 miles, are taken Thursday.

Eight Belles works for Fantasy

Eight Belles, who will go favored in the Grade 2, $250,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies here Sunday, had her final work for the race Monday morning at Oaklawn. She breezed five furlongs in 1:01.40 under jockey Terry Thompson on a track rated good. Clockers had her galloping out six furlongs in 1:14.40.

"Everything went well," said Larry Jones, who trains Eight Belles. "It was good, a good work. She galloped out well, never took a long breath."

Eight Belles has won two stakes in her last two starts, including the Grade 3, $100,000 Honeybee here March 16. Jones said she would be ridden by Ramon Dominguez.

Pure Clan, the runner-up in the Honeybee in her first start since winning the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs in November, is also set for the Fantasy. Trainer Bob Holthus said she would be ridden by Julien Leparoux.

Others expected to start are Alina, an 18 3/4-length winner of the $75,000 Green Oaks Stakes at Delta Downs, and French Kiss, a half-sister to last year's Fantasy winner, High Heels. Gary Hartlage trains French Kiss, who is stakes-placed, and said she will be ridden by Joe Johnson.

Gayego, Liberty Bull head Ark. Derby

The Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby will close out the meet here April 12, and an overflow field is expected to enter the 1 1/8-mile race, according to Lytel. The field size will be limited to 14.

Gayego, a close second to Georgie Boy in the Grade 2 San Felipe in his last start March 15, and Liberty Bull, winner of the $600,000 WinStar Derby on March 16, could vie for favoritism in what is shaping up as an excellent betting race. Another prominent player is My Pal Charlie, runner-up to Pyro in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.

The Arkansas Derby will be part of a pick four that also includes the Blue Grass and Commonwealth Breeders' Cup from Keeneland and the Instant Racing from Oaklawn. The Arkansas Derby will be telecast live on ESPN, with a scheduled post time of 5:45 p.m. Central.

* The Arkansas Racing Commission on Saturday approved a 54-date meet for Oaklawn in 2009. The season will open Jan. 16 and run through April 11. Oaklawn will race Thursday through Sunday most weeks until March 25, when it will add Wednesdays.