10/05/2004 11:00PM

Innovation meets nostalgia at fall meet

Sense of Style, undefeated in three starts, will run in Friday's $400,000 Darley Alcibiades.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Racing as it was meant to be, my fedora. When Keeneland opens Friday for its fall meet, the overriding theme will be far more relevant to horsemen and horseplayers living in the 21st century than to nostalgia buffs.

Reduced takeout on multiple-race wagers, jackpot guarantees, a high-tech system of tracking races, and a futuristic surface on its training track are just some of the upgrades in place for a 17-day meet that, as always, will showcase some of the most important racing in North America this fall.

"We call it 'instant tradition,' " said Keeneland president Nick Nicholson, poking fun at a track that once used the phrase "Racing as it was meant to be" to stubbornly drag its heels at making needed change. "This is going to be an incredibly exciting meet."

Indeed, the meet is sure to get off to a spectacular start during the opening three-day weekend. Front-loaded with major stakes to accommodate horsemen looking to wheel their stars back three weeks later in the

Oct. 30 Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park near Dallas, the meet will host the 2002 Horse of the Year, Azeri, and a slew of horses who are on the threshold of punching their tickets to Texas.

Azeri figures to be the heaviest favorite of "FallStars Weekend," the three-day barrage of graded stakes, but fans will have to wait until Sunday to see her run in what long has been the signature race of the meet, the Grade 1 Overbrook Spinster. There will be no such delay Friday, when two terrific graded races, the Grade 3 Phoenix Breeders' Cup Stakes and Grade 2 Darley Alcibiades Stakes, anchor a 10-race opener that starts at 1:15 p.m. Eastern.

The $250,000 Phoenix, while lacking the star power of a proven BC Sprint type, nonetheless should send a starter or two to Lone Star. Champali, Clock Stopper, Wildcat Heir, and Gold Storm are the main contenders in the Phoenix, which carries a 4:15 post time as the seventh race of the day.

The $400,000 Alcibiades (race 9, post 5:15) shapes up as a critical prep for the BC Juvenile Fillies, with Sense of Style, unbeaten in three starts, looking to take another step on what trainer Patrick Biancone hopes is a march to a divisional championship.

"This race is a major part of her training to the Breeders' Cup," said Biancone. "She does not have to win, although of course I would like her to win."

Ten other 2-year-old fillies pose a stern threat to Sense of Style in the 1 1/16-mile Alcibiades, with Miss Matched, Punch Appeal, Classic Elegance, and Sharp Lisa ranking among the strongest challengers.

Friday is Founders Day, when everyone is encouraged to wear 1930's-style attire. Of greater interest to serious racetrackers are: a reduced mutuel takeout, from 19 to 17 percent, in all pick three, pick four, and pick six bets; a guaranteed $300,000 pick four jackpot on Oct. 10, 17, and 24; new consolation-payoff rules for pick threes; an experimental system of charting races by the Equibase crew, wherein radio transmitters are used to track a horse's trip; and the installation of a synthetic, weather-resistant surface on the five-furlong training track.

"On an altruistic level, we think it's good to try new things," said Nicholson. "But we also think it's good business."

The weather in central Kentucky has been ideal in recent weeks, and that trend is expected to continue through opening weekend. The Friday forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and a high temperature of 77.

Besides having its simulcast signal exported to hundreds of offtrack wagering sites, Keeneland also will have some of its best racing televised, starting Saturday, when the Shadwell Mile and Breeders' Futurity will be part of a one-hour broadcast on ESPN2. Also, Television Games Network will have a crew at Keeneland every racing day.

Kurt Becker, the only full-time race-caller Keeneland has ever had, is back for the 16th straight meet.

Keeneland once again is offering a meet-long online handicapping contest with thousands of dollars in prizes. For more information, log on to keeneland.com.

Key preps at Keeneland

FridayDarley Alcibiades2$400,000Juv. Fillies
  Phoenix Breeders' Cup3250,000Sprint
SaturdayLane's End Breeders' Futurity1500,000Juvenile
 Shadwell Turf Mile1600,000Mile
 Sycamore Breeders' Cup3150,000Turf
SundayOverbrook Spinster1500,000Distaff
 WinStar Galaxy2500,000F&M Turf