04/26/2005 12:00AM

All signs point to Alumni Hall

Jack Coady/Coady Photography
Alumni Hall, winning the MAXXAM Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park, will have Robby Albarado up for the $150,000 Ben Ali Stakes on Thursday at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Even when he had bona fide stars such as Summer Squall and Mineshaft in his barn, trainer Neil Howard tended to downplay his chances in impending races.

Little wonder, then, that when Howard was asked to summarize Alumni Hall's chances in the $150,000 Ben Ali Stakes on Thursday at Keeneland, he responded, with raised eyebrows, "I just hope he runs good."

This modesty is not of the false variety. Howard, who has trained primarily for Will Farish since 1984, knows full well the ups and downs of racing, so his outlook meter rarely reaches past guarded optimism. Still, in consideration of Alumni Hall's recent win over the Keeneland main track and Howard's terrific recent record in the Ben Ali, the widespread wagering support for Alumni Hall will be justified when the 1 1/8-mile race is run this year for the 75th time.

Howard has won three of the last six runnings of the Ben Ali, including the last two. Jazz Club prevailed in 1999, Mineshaft was a nine-length winner during his 2003 Horse of the Year campaign, and Midway Road set a track record when winning last year in 1:46.78.

, one of eight older horses entered in the Grade 3 Ben Ali, ran a lifetime-high 102 Beyer Speed Figure when he captured an April 9 allowance prep for this race. The victory was the sixth in 14 lifetime starts for Alumni Hall, a 6-year-old horse who is a full brother to Secret Status, winner of the 2000 Kentucky Oaks.

Robby Albarado, who rode Mineshaft and Midway Road to their Ben Ali triumphs and has ridden Alumni Hall in his last six starts, has the mount again Thursday.

Among the top challengers are , who was second, beaten only a half-length, in the April 9 prep; the uncoupled Nick Zito-trained duo of Pies Prospect and Go Now; the 2004 Queen's Plate winner, Niigon; and Colonial Colony, winner of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster last June at Churchill Downs.

Ole Faunty and Formal Attire round out the field.

All things being equal, might be the most dangerous opponent for Alumni Hall. In December, Pies Prospect earned an eye-popping 110 Beyer in winning the Fred Hooper Handicap at Calder, then sandwiched two disappointing races - including a last-place finish in the April 9 prep - around a nifty runner-up finish behind Eddington in the Gulfstream Park Handicap in March.

First post for the penultimate card of the 16-day meet is 1:15 p.m. Eastern.