Bobby Frankel walked into the paddock prior to the Grade I Personal Ensign and tried to distance himself from the rest of the overflow crowd. Frankel was content with being left alone. Quiet, reserved, and focused, he watched as champion Ginger Punch was led into her saddling area. And then he got as nervous as a mother who’s lost her child in the supermarket.
“I didn’t realize it until we got her to the paddock but she was in heat out there today,” Frankel said. “She was horsing in the paddock the whole time.”
Stronach Stable’s Ginger Punch (Rafael Bejarano) may not have been on her best behavior prior to the 10-furlong Personal Ensign but once the gates opened she again showed her Eclipse Award-winning form in the $400,000 stakes. In a thrilling and determined stretch drive she scored a nose victory over upstart Lemon Drop Mom (Jose Caraballo) with Unbridled Belle (Ramon Dominguez) farther back in third.
Ginger Punch entered the Personal Ensign off a victory here in the Grade I Go For Wand July 26. Sent off at 1-5 in the 9-furlong handicap she found more trouble than Ferris Bueller on his day off. Boxed in with nowhere to go through much of the running she split horses late to win by 1 1/4-lengths in a race that had every punter with a win ticket heading to church on Sunday morning.
Friday Ginger Punch broke with the field and settled into fourth position on the inside as Golden Velvet set a slow quarter-mile in 24.62. Lemon Drop Mom sat in second, keeping the early leader honest, while second-choice Unbridled Belle raced three deep and in close contact with the leading pair. Longshots Indescribable and So Glitzy completed the compact field. Golden Velvet continued to set a soft pace and passed the half-mile in 49.85, while Unbridled Belle stuck a nose in front of Lemon Drop Mom. Bejarano urged Ginger Punch off the rail to secure a position outside of Lemon Drop Mom and in the clear.
Golden Velvet began to pick up the tempo as the field approached the far turn and Unbridled Belle made the first move, dragging Dominguez to the leader. Entering the turn Golden Velvet began to tire and drifted out, allowing Lemon Drop Mom a dream run on the rail. Caraballo cut the corner and was instantly in front of Unbridled Belle. Bejarano loaded his slingshot and flung Ginger Punch four-wide and took dead-aim on Lemon Drop Mom and Unbridled Belle. There would be no traffic issues today.
“They kept me in trouble last time so I went out there today remembering the trip we got. It was pretty tight out there and everyone was trying to beat me that day,” Bejarano said. “That’s why today I tried to keep her outside and in the clear and then make a run with her. I just wanted her to be comfortable and relaxed.”
As the field straightened away in the lane Ginger Punch joined Lemon Drop Mom on the lead while Unbridled Belle came up wanting in between the two. Ginger Punch and Lemon Drop Mom traveled as one nearing the eighth-pole; their bodies synchronized like Michael Phelps and Milorad Cavic. Ginger Punch appeared to put a nose in front as they passed the sixteenth pole but Lemon Drop Mom countered back, re-engaging her rival and driving to the wire to complete an epic renewal of the Personal Ensign.
“It was pretty tight in the end. My filly never quit trying and the other horse was so close to me, so I didn’t really know,” Bejarano said. “She seems to be getting better each time out there. Today was the first time trying 10 furlongs and she got a little tired in the end but she just kept coming back, just kept trying. When the other horse passed me she didn’t want to lose, she just kept trying and fought back.”
Ginger Punch stormed to a championship in 2007 after a dominant second half of the season. The daughter of Awesome Again took her first career Grade I in last year’s Go For Wand, winning by 6 lengths, and then annexed the Grade I Ruffian at Belmont Park before running third there in the Grade I Beldame. She cemented her Eclipse Award with a game win in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park.
Earlier this spring Stronach resisted the temptation to retire Ginger Punch to a life as a broodmare, much like when he passed on stud duty with his Horse of the Year Ghostzapper in 2005. She’s responded with five wins from six starts, and Friday’s score marked her third straight Grade I victory, following the Ogden Phipps at Belmont June 14 and the Go For Wand earlier in the meet.
After the Personal Ensign was official, Stronach walked onto the main track and met Ginger Punch amid the shadows that crept over a Saratoga grandstand that has seen few races better than Friday’s feature. The 75-year-old Austrian gushed with pride as he paraded his star mare back into the sunlight, where she was greeted to an ovation reserved only for champions at Saratoga. Stronach circled Ginger Punch three times for the crowd and then led her into the winner’s circle for the entire sport to see.
“This was the whole reason we brought her back to the races, to run in races like this today. We always thought she was a great filly and it’s good for racing. People want to see that,” Stronach said. “I was very proud of her today, spotting six pounds to the other filly and still digging in and getting the job done.”
Stronach was swept up in the hysteria of the raucous winner’s circle and headed with his party for a well-deserved celebration. Save one.
“Bobby, come join us in the Trustees’ room for some champagne?” Stronach asked.
“I’ve got to head to the paddock and saddle one in the next race,” Frankel replied.
Frankel walked to the paddock to saddle Good Request for the finale, and then headed to the racing office. He opened the door, climbed into the far corner and sat on the bench – quiet, reserved and focused. And at peace and with another Grade I in his pocket.
He waited – patiently and by himself – as post-time approached. A well-wisher stopped by to offer congratulations and Frankel admitted he wasn’t too optimistic as Ginger Punch and Lemon Drop Mom hit the wire.
“I really didn’t think she won it. It was close and I thought she lost the bob,” Frankel said. “But she showed that she’s a true champion today. She lost ground and was giving weight to a nice filly while trying a mile and a quarter for the first time. And then all that stuff in the paddock, being in heat and all. But she still got it done. So for her to go out there and still win, with all that going against her, that’s a champion.”
Moments later Good Request took the nightcap by a nose.
“That one I knew I won,” Frankel said.