10/05/2011 2:46PM

Keeneland meet is quick from the gate

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Bottle it. Phone-cam it. Whatever way you can preserve it, do it. The aura of Keeneland will be at full peak this opening weekend but might slip away thereafter, so fans will be doing whatever they can to savor its essence.

Spectacular autumn weather combined with a racing schedule packed with major graded stakes should make the first three days of the fall meet a memorable one indeed. Sunny skies and high temperatures around 80 will make for a perfect setting for thousands of fans to cram into this historic track to watch such standout racehorses as Gio Ponti, Get Stormy, Never Retreat, Switch, and Quiet Giant make their final appearances before moving along to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup four weeks later.

“To say we’re excited about the meet would be an understatement,” said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman. “This first three days, especially, should be something else.”

The opening-day feature on Friday pits a full field of 2-year-old fillies in the $400,000 Darley Alcibiades Stakes, the first of six Grade  1 races at a 17-day meet that runs through Oct. 29. Opening day also belongs to sprinters in the Grade 3, $175,000 Phoenix Stakes, the first of nine graded races to be run during the three-day “FallStars Weekend” that opens the meet.

The Alcibiades likely will have unbeaten Tu Endie Wei as a lukewarm favorite in a field of 14, but a host of challengers seem capable of a mild upset. One of those is Putthebabiesdown, whose trainer, Ken McPeek, has won three of the last four training titles at Keeneland.

“We’re going to have a lot of starts at the meet, maybe 50 or more,” said McPeek. “This filly is doing great, and her experience around two turns should really help.”

The horse to beat in the Phoenix is Aikenite, representing the fabulously successful team of jockey John Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher.

The Alcibiades and Phoenix are among six Win and You’re In races being run here this weekend in preparation for the Nov. 4-5 Breeders’ Cup.

The weekend hits full stride Saturday, when five graded races will be run, led by the Grade 1, $600,000 Shadwell Turf Mile, the richest race of the meet. Gio Ponti, an earner of nearly $5.7 million, will be favored to defend his title in an outstanding race that also will have Get Stormy, Court Vision, and Wise Dan in the lineup.

Never Retreat will race here Saturday as the probable choice in the Grade 1 First Lady, while Switch also will be part of the Saturday card in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes. Quiet Giant, trained by Pletcher, looks like the filly to beat in the Grade 1 Juddmonte Spinster on Sunday.

The other Saturday stakes are the Grade 1 Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity and the Grade 3 Woodford for turf sprinters, while the Sunday card, besides the Spinster, also will offer the Grade 3 Bourbon for 2-year-olds on the grass.

NBC and the Versus cable network will combine to provide four hours of coverage, including an hour each day (5-6 p.m.) of opening weekend anchored by Laffit Pincay 3rd. In addition, TVG will have an onsite presence throughout the meet, with Todd Schrupp leading the six broadcasters the network will have here for opening-weekend coverage. The entire Keeneland meet will be streamed live on drf.com.

While idyllic weather is forecast through the weekend, it is supposed to turn considerably cooler next week. The top post-FallStars race is the last Grade 1 of the meet, the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, one of nine stakes scheduled for the balance. The QEII goes a week from Saturday, Oct. 15, the same day Keeneland will run a one-time-only race, the $125,000 Keeneland 75th Anniversary Stakes, a six-furlong race for 2-year-olds that commemorates the track’s 1936 founding.

A broad wagering menu will include two 50-cent pick fours, including a $200,000-guaranteed pool for the late pick four (races  7-10) on the first three Fridays of the meet, as well as a $250,000-guaranteed all-stakes pick four this Saturday. A 50-cent pick five will be held daily on the last five races.

Keeneland runs on a Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule, with the first race going at 1:15 p.m. Eastern.