10/10/2002 11:00PM

Graded stakes experience points to Volga

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Although there is a substantial out-of-town influence at Keeneland in the fall, it exists to a lesser degree than in the spring, when many top stables stop here while en route from southern winter quarters to northern homes.

Most notable are the New York stables that make the Keeneland spring meet a part of their year-round circuit. Trainers such as Christophe Clement, Bill Mott, John Kimmel, and Todd Pletcher routinely send sizable strings to Kentucky in April before they return to Belmont Park.

In October, however, the rich Belmont fall meet is in full swing - as opposed to the remnants of the Aqueduct winter-spring meet that occupy the New York racing calendar in April. That typically translates into Clement and the others remaining in New York with their most formidable runners. They will ship an occasional runner into Keeneland for a specific stakes or allowance race.

That scenario has played itself out this fall, as Clement has raced sparingly at Keeneland.

But on Sunday, the French-born trainer has entered Volga, the one to beat in the $100,000 Dowager Stakes, a 1 1/2-mile turf race for fillies and mares.

Volga, a 4-year-old Irish-bred by the top grass sire Caerleon, has won just once in six starts since coming under Clement's care last summer. But, several of her defeats appear to be more than enough to make her a heavy favorite for the Dowager. She has run well in several Grade 1 events, including the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf last year, as well as the Beverly D. and E.P. Taylor in her most recent starts.

Pat Day will ride Volga from post 1 in the Dowager, for which a field of 10 was entered.

Perhaps the top challengers to Volga are Saffron Dancer, San Dare, and Lapuma, all of whom return following victories. Saffron Dancer captured the Aug. 31 Flaming Page at Woodbine for trainer Mike Doyle; San Dare upset the Sept. 21 Kentucky Cup Ladies Turf at Kentucky Downs for Rick Hiles; and Lapuma won a Sept. 15 overnight stakes at Delaware Park for Alton Quanbeck.

Rounding out the field are Ornate, Strikes No Spares, Dangerous Girl, Sunscreen, Sweet and Red, and Pelusada.

The Dowager, which dates to 1992, is the eighth of nine races on a Sunday card that begins at 1:15 p.m. Eastern. The leading trainer in the race's history is Pat Byrne with three winners.

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