"Perfect," Frankel said after being told the news by his assistant, Jose Cuevas. "The inside is the place to be at Oaklawn."
The Stronach Stables' homebred Ginger Punch, winner of three grade I races last year including the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) en route to capturing an Eclipse Award as the nation's top older filly or mare, is listed as the even-money choice among the half-dozen entered in the 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom. The chestnut carries top weight of 122 and must concede from six to 12 pounds to her rivals, which helps kick off Oaklawn's "Racing Festival of the South."
Frankel is at Keeneland this week preparing Country Star for the Ashland Stakes (gr. I), while Cuevas, his long-time assistant and lead exercise rider, tends to Ginger Punch. Ramon Dominguez takes over the riding chores on the 5-year-old Awesome Again mare, replacing Rafael Bejarano, who has been out of action for the past three weeks with two compressed vertebrae fractures.
"Ginger Punch put in a couple of sharp works before we left Hollywood Park," Cuevas said, "so she doesn't need much. I just jogged her once around the track (Thursday) morning, and she seemed to handle everything fine.
"From post one, I expect she will sit second behind the speed (Clever Strike), and make her move about the three-eighths pole. She is a push-button mare. She'll do whatever Ramon asks."
Winner of five of her past six races, the Florida-bred Ginger Punch has not run since a 6 3/4-length romp in the Sunshine Millions Distaff Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park in her only start of the year. Ginger Punch's task in the Apple Blossom was made a bit easier by the defection from the field of Hystericalady, who lost to the champion by a neck in an exciting edition of the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park Oct. 27.
Ginger Punch brings an 8-5-1 record in 15 starts into the Apple Blossom. She has earned $2,176,679.
Her opponents include the undefeated Zenyatta, a 4-year-old Street Cry filly from Southern California with three wins to her credit for trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss. Zenyatta defeated grade I winners Tough Tiz's Sis and Romance Is Diane in her last start, the El Encino Stakes (gr. II), when she was the 6-5 favorite at Santa Anita Jan. 13.
Moss paid $60,000 for Zenyatta as a yearling at Keeneland in September 2005. She debuted with a three-length win over maidens going 6 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park last Nov. 22. The strapping dark bay then posted a 3 1/2-length win over first-level allowance foes in her first try over a route of ground Dec. 15. For the first time, Mike Smith is to ride Zenyatta, who is 7-2 on the early line.
Smith, who replaces David Flores, has won the Apple Blossom four times, three of them successively aboard the champion Azeri from 2002-04, and on Nine Keys in 1994.
Zenyatta, out of the Kris S. mare Vertigineux, is a half-sister to the millionaire Balance, a three-time grade I winner.
"She's progressed quickly in the caliber of races that she's participated in," Shirreffs told Daily Racing Form. "She's just a really, very, very talented filly. She has a beautiful way of going, and a big stride, and she finishes very strongly."
Calvin Borel, a two-time Apple Blossom winner (with Halo America in 1997 and Gourmet Girl in 2001), pilots the 3-1 second choice Kettleoneup, who is expected to come from off the pace as well.
Trained by Michael Tomlinson for owner/breeder Tom Crouch, the 5-year-old Victory Gallop mare had a string of three consecutive stakes victories ended by Hystericalady in the March 9 Azeri Stakes (gr. III), in which she finished fourth after a mild bid. Kettleoneup has won seven of 19 lifetime starts and earned $639,091.
Brownie Points, a late addition to the field by trainer Donnie Von Hemel, ran second in the Azeri last time out. Clever Strike, expected to set the pace for Shaun Bridgmohan at 110 pounds, finished third in the Azeri. Lemon Drop Mom came home last of five in the Azeri.
$500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I, Race 8, 4:57 p.m.), Fillies & Mares 4 & Up, 1 1/16 Miles
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Ginger Punch (FL), 122, Ramon A. Dominguez
2. Brownie Points (KY), 114, Luis S. Quinonez
3. Lemon Drop Mom (KY), 112, Clinton L. Potts
4. Kettleoneup (KY), 116, Calvin H. Borel
5. Clever Strike (KY), 110, Shaun Bridgmohan
6. Zenyatta (KY), 116, Mike E. Smith
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