04/01/2015 2:11PM

Anticipation high for front-loaded spring meet

SV Photography
Carpe Diem will start on Saturday in the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Absolutely nothing could put a damper on this weekend in Lexington. Yes, it’s supposed to rain, but with Keeneland opening its 15-day spring meet Friday and the Kentucky Wildcats poised to make basketball history the following night, this town is ready to unloose its party jones in a fearsome way, precipitation or no.

Historically front-loaded with a prime purpose of allowing star racehorses to prepare for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, the spring meet at Keeneland is even more so in 2015: the Blue Grass Stakes now comes four weeks before the Derby, not three, meaning opening weekend is being anchored by the track’s signature event.

If Carpe Diem, the heavy Blue Grass favorite, goes on to win here Saturday and then again in the Derby, thereby becoming the first horse in 24 years to pull off that double, the shift in dates will be widely judged a rousing success. If not, well, at least they’re really trying to keep things moving here. Keeneland once was known as staid and aloof, but that reputation was shed years ago. Its forward-thinking leaders have landed the Breeders’ Cup for later this year, and local horsemen and fans are elated with opening up this bucolic showplace and all its modern amenities to the outside world of horseplayers.

The Friday opener peaks with the ninth of 10 races, the Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes, a $100,000 race that drew 13 3-year-olds and will be run on the turf, weather permitting. Track officials have their fingers crossed that conditions will not necessitate a move to the main track – it’s dirt again here, remember, and not Polytrack, with this being the first spring meet on dirt since 2006 – given the overall strength of turf form owned by the Transylvania field. First post Friday is 1:05 p.m. Eastern, with the feature set for 5:13.

As of midweek, the weekend weather situation looked sketchy, for sure. According to The Weather Channel, thunderstorms were expected to move into this region Thursday, with a 100 percent chance of rain Friday and a high temperature of 68. Saturday is supposed to be considerably nicer, with a high of 56 and sunny skies to match all the Kentucky blue in the buzzing crowd.

Blue Grass Day (first post, 12:35) features five straight graded stakes, with $300,000 pool guarantees in the pick five (races 6-10) and pick four (7-10) ending with the main event. Those preceding races are the Grade 1 Madison (race 6), Grade 3 Commonwealth (race 7), Grade 3 Shakertown (race 8), and Grade 1 Ashland (race 9). Post time for the Blue Grass (race 10) is 6:00, with the 11th and last race going at 6:30. The Blue Grass will be shown live on a two-hour (5-7 p.m.) telecast on the NBC Sports Network.

The Grade 1 Blue Grass not only has a new spot on the calendar but a new purse: It is now worth $1 million, up from $750,000, matching it with the Shadwell Turf Mile at the fall meet as Keeneland’s richest annual event.

Carpe Diem, a five-length winner of the Tampa Bay Derby last month in his lone start this year, is one of eight 3-year-olds in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass and figures to be a short price to further his stature on the shortlist of Kentucky Derby favorites.

“I think he’s certainly already stamped himself as one of the leaders of the division,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains the Giant’s Causeway colt for the partnership of Stonestreet Stables and WinStar Farm. “The horse has trained remarkably well since the Tampa Derby, and we’re excited about running him. We just hope for another Carpe Diem-type performance and have him come out of the race healthy.”

Blue Grass Day will be the first of two big Saturdays here. Next Saturday, April 11, will feature four stakes, led by the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley and Grade 3 Coolmore Lexington. In all, there will be 16 stakes run at a meet that ends April 24. Daily purses are expected to average about $668,000, a figure that has enticed the usual swarms of big-name trainers and jockeys.

There will be no racing here Sunday because of the Easter holiday, with action resuming Wednesday.