03/30/2010 11:00PM

Keeneland meet has $3.65M in stakes


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Keeneland experience can mean different things to different people, with the bottom line being that "we want to create a festival," said track president Nick Nicholson. "It's a package, a recipe. We want this to be fun, and we want it to be different types of fun."

For the horseplayer, however, fun usually means just one thing: winning. And when Keeneland kicks off its 15-day spring meet Friday amid spectacular weather, the focus for racing fans throughout North America will be on getting the money.

And there will be plenty of it. Purses once again will rank among the highest on the continent, with a projected per-day average of $614,000, according to racing secretary Ben Huffman. Chasing those big pots will be many of the best trainers and jockeys in the land, which in turn will entice fans to get heavily involved with their wallets.

The meet will get off to the usual quick start, owing largely to the several weeks required before many of these same horses run back during Kentucky Derby week at Churchill Downs. By next Saturday, April 10, all four of the Grade 1 races at the meet will have been run, starting with the Ashland Stakes this Saturday and ending with the traditional meet highlight, the Blue Grass Stakes, a week later.

In all, 16 stakes worth $3.65 million are on tap at a meet that runs through April 23. The first of those is the ninth of 10 Friday races, and a nice one it is: the Grade 3, $100,000 Transylvania Stakes will match nine 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, with four of them already having won stakes.

Macias, a Bob Baffert-trained invader from Southern California, is the most accomplished of the group and could come a slight favorite with Alan Garcia aboard. Macias, by Purge, already has won three minor stakes on his home circuit and most recently was second as an odds-on favorite to Derby hopeful Make Music for Me in the March 6 Pasadena Stakes at Santa Anita.

If form holds, Macias figures to be on or near the early pace in the Transylvania, but then so could two of the other main contenders, Strike the Tiger and Lost Aptitude. That race shape might well set things up for Nordic Truce, a Christophe Clement-trained colt who has raced and won twice, both times from well off the pace.

"He's got a nice kick at the end," said Julien Leparoux, who was aboard Nordic Truce when he made a remarkable rally from 10th in the stretch to win his last race, the Jan. 16 Dania Beach Stakes over the Gulfstream Park turf. "They went really fast early in that race, and he beat a good horse," Bim Bam, a three-time stakes winner. "It will be good if they go fast again Friday."

Besides the Ashland and Blue Grass, other upcoming highlights include the Grade 1 Vinery Madison on April 8, the Grade 1 Maker's Mark Mile on April 9, and the Grade 2 Coolmore Lexington on April 17.

Much of the Friday card, including the Transylvania, looks typical of what Keeneland fans can expect for the duration. "You get a confluence of horses and horsemen coming from all over," said Rogers Beasley, director of racing at Keeneland. "They're in from Florida and New Orleans, and you get horses coming here from California to get ready for Derby week. It's an exciting time."

The meet will start with the first 2-year-old race of the year in Kentucky, a maiden event run at the Headley Course distance of 4 1/2 furlongs out of the Versailles Road chute.

Keeneland officials could not possibly have ordered better weather for the first two days, as high temperatures are expected to approach 80.

Keeneland will be closed Sunday because of the Easter holiday, with the first five-day week starting Wednesday. Mondays and Tuesdays are the usual dark days. First post daily will be 1:05 p.m. Eastern.

One notable change to the wagering menu is the availability of rolling pick threes in smaller increments of 50 cents, which already was the minimum price here for pick fours and trifectas. Superfectas can be bought for a dime.

Kurt Becker, the only race-caller Keeneland has had since installing a public-address system in 1997, will be back in the booth.

TVG will provide extensive onsite coverage throughout the meet.