10/01/2014 11:15AM

Keeneland meet opens with rich stakes, new dirt surface

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Barbara D. Livingston
Wise Dan (left), the winner of the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic over Seek Again, will be one of the top draws during the first weekend of the Keeneland fall meet, which starts Friday.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – A new country song called “Dirt” espouses the many uses of God’s good earth but neglects to mention its popularity as a replacement for Polytrack. But when some 75,000 fans flock to Keeneland on the opening three-day weekend of the fall meet, many will express their delight at laying eyes on the ecru-colored loam conspicuously absent the last eight years here.

Indeed, a new era begins Friday at Keeneland with a new dirt surface, meticulously planned and constructed to displace the ballyhooed synthetic that had alternately enraptured and annoyed horsemen and gamblers since the fall of 2006. Track officials have provided a virtually endless supply of technical information about the new surface and its state-of-the-art drainage system (everything except its cost), but the bottom line is a return to a familiar Keeneland mantra: “Racing as it was meant to be.”

Rogers Beasley, the director of racing at Keeneland, has been a point man since the planned re-transformation of the surface formally was announced in early April, along with track president Bill Thomason and new track superintendent Javier Barajas.

“I think everybody’s excited about the new surface,” Beasley said at an impromptu news briefing on the track apron Tuesday. “We had quite a bit of rain here the last two months, and the drainage system worked very well. Obviously, we won’t know until we start racing on it, but we’re very confident we’re prepared to handle whatever comes our way.”

Trainer Rusty Arnold said he has “heard nothing but good things, honestly,” about the track since he returned to his longtime base from Saratoga in early September.

“I’m like a lot of other people – eager to see how it does when we actually start racing on it,” said Arnold, now in his 40th year of training. “Until then, I think any kind of conjecture about it would be premature.”

The introduction of the new surface coincides with what is another sensational opening to a fall meet front-loaded with huge races. Cleverly billed as Fall Stars Weekend, the first three of 17 fall programs feature nine graded races, none more important than the one in which Wise Dan will run.

The reigning two-time Horse of the Year, Wise Dan will be heavily favored in the Grade 1, $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile, one of five Saturday stakes and the richest race in track history.

“He’s coming into this the right way, yes, sir,” said Charlie LoPresti, who trains the 7-year-old gelding for owner-trainer Morton Fink. “He really is training lights out. I’m as ready as anybody to get him over there Saturday.”

The meet kicks off Friday with a 10-race card anchored by the first of six Grade 1 races at the meet, the $400,000 Darley Alcibiades for 2-year-old fillies. Fashion Alert, who has won the Astoria and Schuylerville stakes in her only two career starts, will be favored when breaking from the rail in a field of 13.

The other Grade 1 races are the First Lady and Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity (Saturday), the Juddmonte Spinster (Sunday), and the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (Oct. 11). In all, there are 17 stakes. All but two are graded, and eight are Win and You’re In events toward the 31st Breeders’ Cup championships, set for Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 at Santa Anita.

Racing secretary Ben Huffman said he expects per-day purses to average more than $650,000, once again among the highest levels in North America. Not surprisingly, the best of the best will be in pursuit of those purses, with Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, D. Wayne Lukas, and Steve Asmussen among the trainers with opening-day entries, and jockeys John Velazquez, Julien Leparoux, Rosie Napravnik, and Joel Rosario being named on the choicest mounts.

Although the weather in this region has been unseasonably warm and dry for the last two weeks or so, rain and cooler temperatures are expected to move in this weekend, with highs of 73 for Friday and just 57 for Saturday.

With all the fantastic racing on tap, and with additional thousands of sports fans in town for the South Carolina-Kentucky football game Saturday night at nearby Commonwealth Stadium, big attendance figures can be expected throughout opening weekend.