10/06/2010 4:21PM

FallStars draws big-name cast

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Keeneland/Coady Photography
Wickedly Perfect trains Tuesday at Keeneland in preparation for the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades Stakes on Friday.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – There are race meets, and then there are race meets. Keeneland Race Course kicks off a 17-day fall meet Friday with the familiar classy touch that perennially places it alongside the Saratogas and Del Mars of the racing world – and it won’t take long to see why this track ranks among those elites.

A whirlwind of racing activity will blur through the opening three-day weekend, with nine graded races being on tap, all of them carrying potential implications toward the Nov. 5-6 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs. Gio Ponti, a multiple Eclipse Award winner and an earner of more than $4.3 million, is the 2010 poster boy for “FallStars Weekend,” the stakes blitz that has become a highly effective momentum-starter here every fall.

Gio Ponti will run Saturday in the richest race of the meet, the $600,000 Shadwell Turf Mile, one of six Grade 1 events on the fall stakes schedule. Several other FallStars races Saturday also attracted some major equine star power, including Proviso in the First Lady, Informed Decision in the Thoroughbred Club of America, and California Flag in the Woodford.

“We’re really excited about all the top horses we’re getting here for FallStars,” said Rogers Beasley, director of racing at Keeneland. “All signs are pointing to this being a nice meet for us.”

Two FallStars events, the Grade 3, $175,000 Phoenix (race 8) and the Grade 1, $400,000 Darley Alcibiades (race 9), anchor the 10-race Friday opener, which starts at 1:05 p.m. Eastern. The Alcibiades, run at 1 1/16 miles on the Polytrack, figures to have Wickedly Perfect, runner-up in the Del Mar Debutante, and Wonderlandbynight, winner of the Arlington-Washington Lassie, as favorites in a field of eight 2-year-old fillies, although several others appear capable of a mild upset.

One of those is Harlan’s Ruby, who comes well-drawn near the rail with Julien Leparoux, a four-time leading jockey at Keeneland, named to ride. Harlan’s Ruby rallied to win a maiden race over the Saratoga turf in her latest start.

“Switching her over to the Poly shouldn’t be an issue,” said Ken McPeek, who has won the Alcibiades three times (2000, 2001, and 2008) and was easily the leading trainer here last fall. “What I’m most excited about is her ability going long.”

Poof Too was expected to remain in Canada and be scratched from the Alcibiades, which would leave no more than seven runners.

The Alcibiades is a Win and You’re In event toward the BC Juvenile Fillies. All but one of the nine FallStars races carry the Win and You’re In designation, with the lone exception being the Woodford.

Leparoux is part of an exceptionally deep roster of jockeys, along with such highly decorated reinsmen as Robby Albarado, Calvin Borel, Kent Desormeaux, and Garrett Gomez. Gomez was the leading rider here in the spring, with 22 wins.

An influx of jockeys from Chicago adds to the colony’s depth, including 23-year-old Michael Baze, who topped the standings at the recently ended Arlington Park meet. Baze also plans to ride throughout the Churchill meet that follows.

Keeneland, like many American tracks in these tough economic times, has cut purses for the fall meet, which runs through Oct. 30. The overall structure was slashed by more than $1 million, including the elimination of two stakes, the Perryville and Bryan Station, and decreases in some other stakes purses. Nonetheless, the per-day payout will be about $575,000, according to racing secretary Ben Huffman, an average that still ranks among the highest in North America.

TVG will have an extensive presence throughout the meet, with Todd T. Schrupp, Paul LoDuca, Tom Amoss, and Michelle Yu on hand for opening weekend. TVG will sponsor a late pick-four wager, with a guaranteed pool of $200,000, on all four Fridays of the meet.

A $250,000-guaranteed all-stakes pick four also will be available Saturday. Pick fours, pick threes, and trifectas can be bought in 50-cent increments.

An 11-race Saturday card will include the first Arabian race in track history.

Kurt Becker, the only race-caller at Keeneland since a public-address system was installed here in 1997, will be back in the announcer’s booth.

Ideal weather is being predicted for the Lexington area Friday through Sunday, with sunny skies and high temperatures of about 80.