04/05/2017 11:40AM

Keeneland opens with stakes-heavy weekend

Keeneland / Coady Photography
McCraken, training Sunday at Keeneland, is the favorite for Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Not unlike a Thoroughbred breaking from the gate, Keeneland will get another meet off to a flying start with a three-day weekend that will set the tone for a highly eventful spring at this picturesque track.

Seven graded stakes led by the Blue Grass Stakes will be run Friday through Sunday, with a terrific renewal of the Transylvania Stakes anchoring a 10-race Friday opener. Oscar Performance, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in his most recent start, will be favored in a field of nine 3-year-olds in the Grade 3, $150,000 Transylvania.

The front-loaded 15-day meet then will have five graded stakes to offer a huge crowd here Saturday. In a touch of irony, the $1 million Blue Grass is being touted as quite possibly the best race on the trail to the May 6 Kentucky Derby despite having been downgraded from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2 race over the winter.

“I think a lot of people believe [the downgrade] may have been a mistake,” said trainer Ken McPeek, who will send out the longshot It’s Your Nickel in the Blue Grass. “It’s a tough race this year, and if you go through the history, it’s always a tough race. Maybe when it was run on Polytrack [from 2007-14] it lost some of its luster, but no, I’m sure that’ll all be reviewed.”

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McCraken, undefeated in four career starts for Whitham Thoroughbreds, is the morning-line favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass over Tapwrit, a romping winner of the Tampa Bay Derby and one of a half-dozen or so live Derby prospects for trainer Todd Pletcher. Others in the field of seven include Practical Joke, a two-time Grade 1 winner, and the improving J Boys Echo.

The Blue Grass, race 10 of 11, will be the last of five straight Saturday stakes. The others are the Grade 3 Commonwealth, which presents a rematch of A. P. Indian and Limousine Liberal, the one-two finishers here last fall in the Phoenix; the Grade 2 Shakertown, which should be a definitive race among the nation’s turf sprinters; the Grade 1 Madison, which drew an outstanding group of fillies and mares, including Paid Up Subscriber, Paulassilverlining, and Constellation; and a well-matched renewal of the Grade 1 Ashland, which likely will launch at least a couple of fillies to the May 5 Kentucky Oaks.

The lone Sunday stakes is the Grade 3 Beaumont, for which Dancing Rags, the winner of the Alcibiades here last fall for trainer Graham Motion, is among the expected starters.

Purses are projected to average a track-record $735,000 per day through closing day, April 28, an increase largely attributable to revenue from the Instant Racing machines that became operational last fall at Keeneland’s partner track, The Red Mile. Those purses are among the compelling reasons why the top jockeys and trainers from recently concluded meets at Gulfstream Park and Fair Grounds will be working in Kentucky in the coming weeks, making Keeneland once again a melting pot for the elite.

Wesley Ward, renowned for his brilliance with 2-year-olds, hopes to be the leading trainer – at least after the first minute of the meet. Ward will send out the uncoupled duo of Kitty Kat Kate and Fairyland in the meet opener, a 2-year-old race at 4 1/2 furlongs.

“I don’t intend to scratch either one,” said Ward. “Hopefully, this will get us off on the right foot. We’ve not only got a lot of 2-year-olds to run, but we’ve pointed a lot of our older horses to races here this spring. We’d love to have a little luck and put on a good show.”

Similarly, Chad Brown is here with some of his stars. Besides Ticonderoga in the Transylvania and Practical Joke in the Blue Grass, Brown has New Money Honey for the April 13 Appalachian and Lady Eli for the April 15 Jenny Wiley.

“I’ve also got a few allowance horses and a couple of nice maidens to run,” said Brown. “This is a great meet, and I’m happy to be here.”

The weather forecast for Friday following Thursday rain is a little dicey – a high of only 54, with windy conditions – but it’s supposed to be nicer through the rest of the weekend, with sunshine and high temperatures reaching the mid-70s by Sunday.

TVG will have a major presence throughout the meet, with Todd T. Schrupp, Paul LoDuca, Caton Bredar, and Caleb Keller being on hand for opening weekend.

Keeneland will race on a Wednesday-to-Sunday schedule, with April 16 dark because of the Easter holiday. First post daily is 1:05 p.m. Eastern.