04/05/2006 12:00AM

Big crowd to greet elite meet

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Every spring, when Keeneland Race Course reopens on a Friday in April, there exists a pervasive sense of youth and rejuvenation - and not just because thousands of post-pubescents, allured by a biannual college scholarship raffle, help pack the track to the rafters.

No, it's more about the horses. After a long winter without top-class racing in Kentucky, the best stables in North America are reconvening at Keeneland, where once again a fabulous three weeks of racing will get under way Friday at 1:15 p.m. Eastern. True to this youthful theme, the first race of the meet is for 2-year-olds, none of whom ever have started.

The 2006 spring meet brings not only a spirit of newness, but also one of nostalgia. Because Keeneland is expected to install Polytrack as its main racing surface in time for the fall meet in October, this is most likely the final meet for the Keeneland dirt track. The track's board of directors is expected to approve final plans for Polytrack on April 19.

Otherwise, it's business as usual at Keeneland, which means an inordinately large number of graded stakes (14) and a gaudy per-day purse average (more than $600,000) during a 15-day meet that ends April 28.

"We should have another outstanding meet," said Rogers Beasley, director of racing at Keeneland.

The Friday feature, the $150,000 Central Bank Transylvania Stakes, is the first of three stakes - all for 3-year-olds - on the three-day opening weekend. To Sender, unbeaten in two North American starts since being turned over to Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, should be a solid favorite in the Grade 3 Transylvania, which will be run at a mile on turf as the eighth of nine races.

To Sender, bred and owned by Juddmonte Farms, used a sensational rally to win his United States debut, a Jan. 22 allowance at Santa Anita, then followed with a victory in the March 18 Pasadena Stakes. Alex Solis, who rode the British-bred colt in both Santa Anita wins, will be back aboard Friday.

Frankel, who won the Transylvania last year when Chattahoochee War barely nipped Guillaume Tell on the wire, is one of many highly accomplished trainers who will have horses in action on a daily basis here.

"Pretty much all the big trainers are here," said Beasley.

Todd Pletcher, the leading trainer at Keeneland last spring and an overwhelming favorite to repeat, is represented by Tompest in the Transylvania. Eleven are entered in the race, although a limit of 10 will be allowed to start.

Among the fringe contenders is Dawn of War, who pulled a stunning wire-to-wire upset here last fall in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. The Transyvania will be the first race for Dawn of War since the colt regressed to finish 11th in the Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the seventh race of his juvenile campaign

"He ran a lot at 2, so we just gave him some time off," said trainer Dale Romans. "We wanted to avoid some of the tougher spots and to see if he likes the grass."

The remaining stakes this weekend are the Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland on Saturday and the $100,000 Lafayette on Sunday. Seven stakes will be run here next week, highlighted by the annual spring showcase, the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on April 15.

The opening-day promotion, known as College Scholarship Day, will offer 10 scholarships worth $1,000 each. The raffle typically boosts attendance by several thousand fans, according to officials with Keeneland and the event co-sponsor, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.

The weekend weather forecast is not particularly good. Friday calls for rain and a high temperature of 73, while Saturday is supposed to bring diminishing showers and a high of only 51.

Kurt Becker, the only race-caller in track history, will be back for his 19th meet. Keeneland first used a public-address system in 1997; before then races were run without a race-caller.

Meet highlights

DATERACE (GRADE)PURSE
April 8Ashland (Gr.1)$500,000
April 12Madison (Gr. 2)200,000
April 13Beaumont (Gr. 2)250,000
April 14Maker's Mark Mile (Gr. 2)250,000
April 15Blue Grass (Gr. 1)750,000
April 15Commonwealth B.C. (Gr. 2)400,000
April 15Jenny Wiley (Gr. 2)200,000
April 21Royal Chase/Spt. of Kings (NSA-Gr. 1)150,000
April 22Lexington (Gr. 2)325,000