06/12/2008 12:00AM

Phipps challenger returns as champ

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The Grade 1, $300,000 Ogden Phipps Handicap was an important launching pad last year for Ginger Punch.

She rallied gamely to miss by only a neck, an effort that hinted at positive things to come.

Ginger Punch headlines this year's 1 1/16-mile Phipps on Saturday at Belmont Park in a new role: no longer the filly full of promise of last year but a reigning Eclipse Award winner.

"She showed she could run with good fillies," Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel said of last year's Phipps. "I thought she probably should have won. That's water under the bridge."

The trickle became a torrent as Ginger Punch reeled off four stakes wins in her next five starts, culminating with a neck victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff that clinched the divisional title.

Now 5, Ginger Punch came back strong this year with two wins in three starts, including the Grade 2 Louisville Stakes most recently at Churchill Downs.

"Physically, she looks better than she did last year," said Frankel.

A recent quarter crack has been patched by Ian McKinlay, the same foot expert who treated Big Brown, and should not be an issue, said Frankel.

"She's fine," he said.

As an insurance policy, Frankel also entered Spring Waltz, in the event that Ginger Punch doesn't make the race. They are a coupled wagering entry.

"I put her in, just in case," Frankel said. "They are not going to both run. You never know. Things happen overnight."

With success comes added weight in handicaps. Ginger Punch carried 114 pounds last year; she will haul top weight of 123 on Saturday. Rafael Bejarano will ride.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin also entered two - Cowgirls Don't Cry and Golden Velvet - and they will race uncoupled.

Both are coming off a win. Cowgirls Don't Cry took the Grade 2 Shuvee at Belmont, while Golden Velvet captured the Grade 3 Sixty Sails at Hawthorne.

Cowgirls Don't Cry has shown steady improvement since a 55 3/4-length trouncing in the Next Move Handicap at Aqueduct in late March with Chuckie Lopez aboard.

"She just had a bad day," McLaughlin said. "He was trying to settle her and she was fighting back. She overreacted. You got to let her run. She doesn't want to be rated."

Cowgirls Don't Cry rebounded from the Next Move with an improved third in Aqueduct's Bed o' Roses Handicap before scoring a front-running win in the Shuvee.

"She's moving in the right direction," McLaughlin said. "That was a nice win."

McLaughlin knows that with Ginger Punch in the field, it's a deep spot for both of his entrants.

"We're in a tough race, but we're going to give it our best," McLaughlin said. "Both fillies are training well and we think they'll run well. It's not an easy race."

Cowgirls Don't Cry was also entered in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap the same afternoon for the same purse at Churchill Downs.

Moon Catcher also faces a much tougher assignment than in her last race. She was an easy winner last time out in an overnight stakes at Calder, her second start for trainer Christophe Clement.

"She has trained well," Clement said. "This is an ambitious spot. The race in Calder was a very good effort against limited competition. She won very nicely."

Moon Catcher won three stakes last season for trainer Tim Ritchey: the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks and the Susan's Girl, both at Delaware Park, and the Maryland Million Oaks at Laurel.

Completing the Phipps field are Spectacular Malibu, an allowance winner at Belmont last month for trainer Michael Trombetta, and Mistical Plan, who has come from California for trainer Doug O'Neill.