03/30/2012 1:07PM

Keeneland: Ashland, Transylvania the early focus

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Tom Keyser
Disposablepleasure is among the early prospects for the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland.

The seasons change abruptly next week in Lexington, Ky., and it has nothing to do with weather or a vernal equinox. Tens of thousands of fans will shift their focus from basketball to horse racing as the impending spring meet at Keeneland helps to perpetuate their insatiable sporting joneses.

Keeneland will open its 15-day spring meet Friday, April 6, with the $100,000 Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf, then conclude an abbreviated opening weekend the following day with the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes. There will be no racing Sunday, April 8, because of the Easter holiday.

Over the winter, the Ashland had its purse restored to the $500,000 level after three years of being run for $400,000. Keeneland racing personnel say they are expecting a sizable field to result from the 80 3-year-old fillies nominated to the 1 1/16-mile Polytrack race, with early prospects including Disposablepleasure, Hard Not to Like, Inny Minnie, Karlovy Vary, Livi Makenzie, and Lotta Lovin.

Racing secretary Ben Huffman said he has been informed that a planeload of horses from Southern California will arrive in midweek in advance of opening weekend. He said he expects several Ashland runners to be on that flight.

Entries for the Friday opener will be taken Tuesday, and the Saturday card will be drawn Wednesday.

Opening day will mark another of the ever-popular college scholarship days, which tends to bring out a few extra thousand college-age fans trying to win one of the 10 $1,000 scholarships being raffled off.

Keeneland is introducing several new features this meet, most notably a fractional wagering system that allows fans to bet parts of a dollar as long as the wagering minimum is met. Also new is a decimal display that shows the exact will-pays for certain bets.

The highlight of the spring meet is the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on April 14. The meet runs through April 27.

Turfway Park meet wraps up

Four consecutive months of live action at Turfway Park ends quietly Sunday in Florence, Ky., with closing day of the winter-spring meet. The Kentucky circuit then goes dark for four days before Keeneland begins Friday.

Despite more bad news this winter at Turfway – there was no movement on the alternative-gaming front and purses were slashed 25 percent for the last few weeks of the meet – the remaining 2012 dates apparently will be fulfilled as scheduled.

“We are committed to running the dates assigned us,” Turfway spokeswoman Sherry Pinson said last weekend. That includes the Kentucky Cup series – for which WinStar Farm is in the second of three years as title sponsor – during the fall meet in September.

News from last Saturday was encouraging: the 12-race card anchored by the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes drew an all-sources handle of $5,619,644, up more than 26 percent over the 2011 Spiral card, when $4,449,108 was bet.

◗ Todd Pletcher will have a diminished presence this spring at the Keeneland and Churchill meets, especially after the Kentucky Derby is run May 5. Pletcher assistant Michael McCarthy, who in recent years has overseen the Kentucky string from spring through fall, said the stable will have about 20 horses here through the Derby, but they will disperse afterward. Pletcher has been the leading trainer at the Keeneland spring meet twice, in 2005 and 2008.