04/06/2011 3:11PM

Keeneland looks for strong start to spring meeting

Barbara D. Livingston
Kathmanblu will be among the favorites in Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 Ashland at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Sports fans in the Bluegrass are still grieving the defeat of their beloved Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA basketball semifinals, so the timing couldn’t be better. Here comes Keeneland, where a spring afternoon of racing provides the perfect salve for pretty much any wound.

Indeed, going hoops to hooves should turn this town around in a hurry.

“You can always just sense the excitement building for Keeneland,” racing secretary Ben Huffman said. “There aren’t many better places to come spend a day and forget about the real world.”

The 15-day spring meet kicks off Friday with the $100,000 Transylvania Stakes, a competitive-looking turf race that should set the appropriate tone for a meet front-loaded with major races such as the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes and the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes. Pluck, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall, is the 5-2 morning-line favorite among 10 3-year-olds in the Transylvania.

The $400,000 Ashland has attracted several top prospects for the May 6 Kentucky Oaks, including Kathmanblu and Dancinginherdreams, for its 74th running Saturday. A field of nine 3-year-old fillies is entered.

The $750,000 Blue Grass, traditionally a key prep for the Kentucky Derby, already is shaping up with a huge field. Track officials are listing 13 probable starters (14 is the maximum) for the April 16 showcase, including Santiva, Crimson China, King Congie, and Wilkinson.

Santiva, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall at Churchill Downs for trainer Eddie Kenneally, is scheduled to have his final pre-race work Saturday at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida before arriving here a day or two afterward.

Two other Grade 1 races will be run next week: the $300,000 Vinery Madison, with Evening Jewel a possible starter, is set for April 14, while the $300,000 Maker’s Mark Mile, always an important event for older turf horses, will be run the following day.

MORE: Lukas returns with 30 horses for spring meet | Cruguet plans one-race comeback

Despite some reductions and revisions in the stakes schedule from last year, the overnight program essentially remains the same, and Huffman said he expects per-day purse levels to remain at the customary $600,000. The Friday opener hints at the kind of high-end racing that fans can expect throughout this stand: three allowances have purses of $62,000, $54,000, and $54,000, while each of three maiden special weight races sport $50,000 purses.

New at this meet: a 50-cent pick five replaces the traditional pick six, which rarely had its jackpots build to appreciable sums. The 50-cent pick five that made its debut at the current Gulfstream Park meet has drawn a positive response from horseplayers. The Keeneland pick five will be held on the last five races of the day.

Every Friday at the meet, including opening day, the 50-cent late pick four (races 7-10) will offer a $200,000 pool guarantee by TVG. The late pick four on Blue Grass Day will be guaranteed at $250,000.

Pick threes and trifectas also are available in 50-cent increments, as well as superfectas for 10 cents.

Weather in the Lexington area was very chilly early this week, but a warming trend was supposed to lift temperatures into the mid-70s by Friday and into the lower 80s by Sunday. Rain is possible Friday and Saturday.

Television Games Network will provide extensive onsite coverage throughout the meet, with opening weekend being handled by Michelle Yu, Donna Barton Brothers, Todd T. Schrupp, and Paul LoDuca. Video of Friday’s entire card can be streamed live on DRF.com.

Opening day is college scholarship day, with 10 scholarships worth $1,000 being raffled off to registered students.

Founded in 1936, Keeneland is celebrating its 75th anniversary at this meet in a variety of ways. On Wednesday, Jane Beshear, first lady of Kentucky, was at the track to unveil a commemorative license plate honoring the track.

The Keeneland meet runs through April 29, after which Churchill will start Derby week by running its April 30 opener at night for the first time.