10/02/2003 11:00PM

A bit of old times at opener


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Keeneland celebrated opening day of the fall meet Friday with a nostalgic theme. All kinds of attire and decorative styles from the 1930's abounded, lending a distinct feeling that the era of Seabiscuit had returned, but perhaps a more pressing issue was whether any of the racehorses in action could remotely emulate the prowess of that legendary superstar.

That subject most likely will remain open to debate, probably at least for another three weeks. The two graded stakes on the opening-day card, the Phoenix Breeders' Cup Stakes and Darley Alcibiades Stakes, probably produced at least one starter apiece for the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup. Whatever the case, the action was eventful, and, if the tone of the frequent roars of the 15,263 who attended the sun-splashed opener could be accurately ascertained, exciting.

Najran, the enigmatic gray colt known for his occasional brilliance, once again brought his "A" game to Keeneland, running off from Ethan Man to win the $264,000 Phoenix by 1 1/2 lengths. An hour later, Be Gentle posted a decisive triumph in the $400,000 Alcibiades, giving trainer D. Wayne Lukas a record sixth win in the Grade 2 race for 2-year-old fillies.

Both winners appear headed to the Breeders' Cup, but whether any of their beaten opponents will join them at Santa Anita appeared questionable in the immediate aftermaths.

Najran, owned by Buckram Oak Farm and trained by Nick Zito, won the Grade 3 Phoenix after pressing the pace from the outermost position in a three-way speed duel. Turning for home, as Ethan Man held grimly to a narrow lead while racing nearest the rail, Najran gradually began overtaking him with long strides, finally pulling away to finish six furlongs in 1:08.32 over a fast track.

"Every time I asked him, he responded," said winning rider Javier Castellano. "That's a great horse."

Indeed, Najran, a 4-year-old colt by Runaway Groom, has been great at times. Nearly a year ago, he won the Perryville at Keeneland by nine lengths, and in the spring, he wowed racing fans in New York by winning the one-mile Westchester Handicap at Belmont in a track-record 1:32.24. And although the colt has had numerous disappointments - he was beaten 34 lengths in the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup here in the spring and had lost his three races leading to the Phoenix, all to Aldebaran - the prevailing thought in the moments following the Phoenix was that he had punched his ticket to the BC Sprint.

"I hope so," said Mohammed Moubarak, racing manager for Mahmoud Fustok's Buckram Oak. "Mr. Fustok and Nick Zito will have to sit down and talk about it. He's an improved racehorse."

Najran, now a winner in 7 of 15 starts, paid $14 to win as third choice in a field of eight. Ethan Man, a 14-1 shot, finished another two lengths ahead of Take Achance On Me (66-1). Then came Dubai Sheikh, Out of My Way, Great Notion, Strength and Honor, and Beau's Town.

Pat Byrne, trainer of Ethan Man, said he probably would pass the BC Sprint but that it would remain open for consideration.

Easily the most puzzling performance was turned in by Beau's Town, the 11-10 favorite under Pat Valenzuela. After tracking the early leaders from the rail, the Arkansas-bred gelding retreated to finish last, beaten 12 1/2 lengths.

"Pat said he was lugging in down the backside and never really got comfortable," said trainer Cole Norman. "Today was definitely not good. We'll see how he pulls up and go from there."

The results of the Alcibiades seemingly assured Lukas of keeping his record intact for having at least one starter at every Breeders' Cup since the 1984 inaugural. Be Gentle, always on the lead under Cornelio Velasquez, pulled away from Deb's Charm before finishing 5 1/2 lengths ahead of 14-1 shot Galloping Gal. Deb's Charm faded to third, another 3 1/2 lengths back. Then came Sweet Jo Jo, Whirlwind Charlott, In Rome, and the 9-5 second choice, Lokoya.

Be Gentle, a Tale of the Cat filly owned by Tom VanMeter II, returned $5 after finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.51. The Alcibiades was her second stakes win, following the Debutante at Churchill Downs in July. In her previous start, Be Gentle finished second to Ashado in the Spinaway at Saratoga.

"The cool thing about winning this race is that my wife's great-grandfather, [Keeneland founder] Hal Price Headley, owned Alcibiades," said VanMeter. "We couldn't be more thrilled."

"I thought Cornelio rode a beautiful race," said Lukas. "You always have questions about these fillies when they go 1 1/16 miles for the first time, but I think she answered all the questions today."

Ken McPeek, who trains Galloping Gal and Deb's Charm, said he doubted whether either would join Be Gentle in the BC Juvenile Fillies.

Overall, racing on the main track Friday seemed to tilt slightly in favor of early speed horses, as frequently occurs at Keeneland. Although horses rallied from well back to win three of the eight main-track races, the other five were won by front-running types.

Jon Court rode the first winner of the meet, Right Revved, reversing what occurred here in the spring, when Court went winless until the final day of the meet.

"There'll be no duck at the Court house," said Court. "We'll be eating steak, chicken, and potatoes, but no duck."

Pat Day rode three winners on the card.