10/03/2001 11:00PM

Grade 2's paired up in Keeneland opener


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The leaves are turning. The burgoo is steaming. The horses are jumping out of their hides.

Workers are trimming the hedges, polishing the furniture, testing the toteboard, tapping the kegs.

The unmistakable sights, smells, and sounds of a Bluegrass autumn are in the air, which can only mean one thing in this corner of the world:

Keeneland is open for live horse racing again.

The 17-day fall meet will get off to an extraordinarily quick start Friday when two Grade 2 stakes, the WinStar Galaxy and Walmac International Alcibiades, highlight a nine-race card. The opening-day program is just the start of what should be a fabulous three-day weekend, when a total of six graded stakes will be run and more than $3.7 million in purses will be paid out.

Although the tempo of the meet will slow noticeably after this weekend, Keeneland will run at least one stakes per card through closing day, Oct. 27. The bottom line is that per-day purses again are expected to average over $600,000, an impressive figure by anyone's standards.

Each of the six graded races on opening weekend should have impact on the Oct. 27 World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont Park. On Friday, the $400,000 Alcibiades, which is carded as the sixth of nine races, probably will yield a starter or two for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Similarly, fillies and mares who run strongly in the eighth race, the $500,000 Galaxy, deserve consideration for the BC Filly and Mare Turf.

Tout Charmant, who last year upset eventual Eclipse champion Perfect Sting in the 1 3/16-mile Galaxy, is back to defend her title for trainer Ron McAnally and jockey Chris McCarron. A 5-year-old Slewvescent mare and an earner of nearly $1.58 million for owner Stonerside Stable, Tout Charmant clearly has a fondness for the Keeneland turf course - yet surely the major question for her is whether or not she improves off her only start this year, a fifth-place finish in the Sept. 1 Palomar Handicap at Del Mar. Before that, Tout Charmant had been on a 10-month vacation, having won the Grade 1 Matriarch at Santa Anita to end her 2000 campaign.

If Tout Charmant is not fully prepared, then a handful of rivals appear capable of dethroning her in the Galaxy. Among the top challengers in the field of 10 are Spook Express, a late-running mare who scratched from the Grade 1 Flower Bowl at Belmont last weekend; Megans Bluff, a consistent filly who will try to rebound off a disappointing finish in the Beverly D. seven weeks ago; and Presli, a promising Irish-bred making her second U.S. start for trainer Michael Dickinson.

One other potential surprise is Nuit de Siam, who, like Tout Charmant, has shipped in from California.

Nuit de Siam, a French-bred gray, is winless in three U.S. starts, but her connections are optimistic she can score an upset.

"Tout Charmant is the one to beat, but she could be vulnerable if she runs like she did at Del Mar," said Scott Chaney, traveling assistant for trainer Darrell Vienna. "Our filly has run some pretty nice numbers. If the favorite isn't there, we could be the right one."

This is only the fourth running of the Galaxy, which in its brief history already has attracted high-profile turf mares such as Memories of Silver, Fiji, Happyanunoit, and Perfect Sting. The race seems to have found a niche as a worthy prep for the BC Filly and Mare Turf.

The Friday undercard also includes the $75,000 Nureyev Stakes and three allowance races. No claiming races are carded.

The Nureyev, which goes as race 4, drew two of North America's top turf sprinters in Morluc and Texas Glitter. A field of eight was entered in the 5 1/2-furlong race.

Although live racing is the main attraction here, on-track patrons wishing to bet imported simulcast races will have their choice of Belmont, Arlington, and Santa Anita the entire fall.

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