03/31/2004 1:00AM

All eyes turn to Bluegrass


LEXINGTON, Ky. - They might not be able to look away. The racing at Keeneland this spring will be so compelling that horseplayers throughout North America should find themselves transfixed by their simulcast sets, so deep and inspiring is the quality that lay ahead.

A 15-day meet begins Friday with 10 races, foremost among them the $100,000 Transylvania Stakes. Whereas many of the continent's top jockeys and trainers will be prominent throughout the opening-day program, the names of most of the horses will not be quite so familiar.

But that won't last long. The roster of recognizable racehorses ready to compete here is a lengthy one indeed: Halfbridled, Ashado, Madcap Escapade, Lady Tak, Ema Bovary, Congaree, Wando, Lion Heart, Action This Day, and Preachinatthebar, just for starters.

Purse levels would certainly seem to justify such star power. Keeneland's racing secretary, Ben Huffman, has estimated average payouts of $635,000 per program, an eye-popping number by anyone's standards. "It's enough to get the superstars to parade through here for a few weeks," said Huffman.

The Saturday card features the Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland Stakes, quite possibly the most attractive race so far this year for 3-year-olds of either gender. Halfbridled is expected to square off against unbeaten Madcap Escapade and the razor-sharp Ashado in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland.

After the opening three-day weekend and two dark days, action will resume with what figures to be another sensational matchup in the $175,000 Vinery Madison Stakes on Wednesday. Projected starters for the seven-furlong race include five graded stakes winners: Lady Tak, Ema Bovary, Buffythecenterfold, Harmony Lodge, and Yell.

Older grass horses will take center stage next Friday, April 9, when Perfect Soul and Honor in War join what should be another deep field in the $200,000 Maker's Mark Mile.

The meet highlight comes the following day: the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the Grade 1 fixture that will serve as the final Kentucky Derby prep for hopefuls Lion Heart, Action This Day, and Preachinatthebar, among others. As if the day requires further decoration, the Blue Grass undercard also is expected to get Congaree and Wando in the $250,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup.

Later stakes at the meet include the Grade 1 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings on April 16 and the Grade 2 Coolmore Lexington on April 17. By the time the meet closes April 23, Keeneland will have hosted 19 stakes, 14 of them graded. Every program will feature at least one stakes.

The Grade 3 Transylvania, named for the local university founded in 1780, typifies the brand of competition that should characterize the meet. More than a few of the 11 3-year-olds entered in the one-mile grass race are legitimate contenders, including Commendation, a winner of two turf races here last fall, and Grand Heritage, a sharp winner last month over the Gulfstream turf.

But if there is a horse to be singled out as the likeliest to beat, it is Timo - despite a three-month layoff. Trainer Bill Badgett said Timo has thrived in recent training at the Fair Grounds, where the colt breezed five furlongs Sunday morning before departing for Keeneland that evening.

Timo, a gray El Prado colt bred and owned by C.K. Woods Stable, has won two stakes from his six starts, all on turf. He won the Mecke at Calder in November before fading to eighth in the Tropical Park Derby in his most recent start Jan. 1.

"He needed a little time off," said Badgett. "I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't have sent him over to Florida a second time, because he was a little knocked out after that. But he's come back extremely well, and we're looking forward to Friday."

Timo will be ridden by Edgar Prado, who in just the last two years has won a phenomenal 13 stakes races at Keeneland, including seven Grade 1's. Prado is one of many world-class riders expected to ride here frequently this spring, along with Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez, Jose Santos, Robby Albarado, Shane Sellers and others.

First post each day is 1:15 p.m. Eastern.