10/05/2012 5:17PM

Keeneland meet kicks off with familiar winners


LEXINGTON, Ky. – Larry Rivelli had to skip opening day at Hawthorne to run a horse instead on a warm sunny day at Keeneland. Tough break, dude.

“We picked our spot with this one,” a smiling Rivelli said after getting his photograph taken in the Keeneland winner’s circle after sending out favored Breaking Ball to win the fourth race on the Friday opener of the 17-day fall meet.

Rivelli, a longtime Chicago regular, was among those happy to be here. As always, the long break between Keeneland meets elicits an almost giddy mood among the local faithful, and if it weren’t for the new decimal-odds system and other overt clues of modernity, you might have thought this was an opening day from decades ago. Fans cheered simply when horses broke from the starting gate, and $2 bettors could be spotted celebrating wildly even as favorites galloped home in three straight early races (3-4-5).

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On a mild and breezy afternoon marked by intermittent cloud cover, Julien Leparoux picked up right where he left off from prior Keeneland meets, patiently guiding Admiral Kitten to a come-from-behind triumph in the first race of the day, a $50,000 maiden-claiming route over the Polytrack. Leparoux has led or been tied atop the Keeneland standings at 8 of the last 13 meets, including each of the last four.

“It feels like home,” he said.

Admiral Kitten, a first-time starter by Kitten’s Joy, represented other connections also accustomed to winning at Keeneland: owner-breeders Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker. Ken Ramsey, predictably, grinned proudly after winning the first race of the meet.

“We’re unbeaten,” he laughed.

Three races later, Leparoux was aboard Breaking Ball for Rivelli, who is quite familiar with synthetics as a perennial top-five trainer at Arlington, where Polytrack also is the main surface. Polytrack was first used six years ago at Keeneland at the 2006 fall meet.

“This track is pretty much the same,” Rivelli said. “It gets a little gooier when it’s hotter, and it seems to play pretty fair. They do a good job with it.”

Two turf races, both of them rich allowances, were run over firm going on the 10-race Friday opener. Heavenly Landing ($3.80) took the fifth under Corey Lanerie, and Miami Deco ($30) upset the seventh for Elvis Trujillo.

The new decimal-odds system was used only for the infield tote system – if a 3-1 shot was going to pay $8.40, the board would display 4.20 – while the simulcast signal used the traditional odds display (for example, 8-5 instead of 2.60, or 9-2 instead of 5.50).

No one could blame bettors – rookies or long-timers – if they got a little confused, because, in addition, the win-place-show payoffs were displayed in $1 increments (both on- and offtrack) in a notable departure from the traditional $2 increments. Keeneland officials say the move is a way to further modernize their tote operations and to be more accurate with what fans can expect for payoffs. In addition, win-place-show wagers are now available for a $1 minimum this meet.

The first bombs-away result of the meet came with the sixth race when Silver Strike, a 38-1 shot under Shaun Bridgmohan, narrowly prevailed over Flashy Gray (25-1) in a maiden special weight race at 6 1/2 furlongs on Polytrack. The $2 exacta (3-10) returned a whopping $2,076.60.

The Friday opener was the first day at a Keeneland race meet with Bill Thomason Jr. as president and chief executive officer. Thomason ascended to that position following the Sept. 1 retirement of Nick Nicholson after 13 years at the Keeneland helm.

The Grade 3 Phoenix and Grade 1 Alcibiades, the first two of nine FallStars Weekend stakes, were scheduled for later on the Friday card. All of the FallStars races are graded events designed as Breeders’ Cup preps.

The fall meet runs through Oct. 27.