04/04/2012 2:20PM

Keeneland: Party continues, despite fewer East Coast shippers

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Coady Photography/Keeneland
Keeneland will open its 15-day spring meeting on Friday.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – This side of Disney World, there aren’t many happier places right now than the city of Lexington. Days after seeing their beloved Kentucky Wildcats knock out their eighth NCAA basketball championship, area sports fans still have hoarse voices and “One Shining Moment” ringing in their ears.

Better still, the party is rolling right along. Thousands of blue-clad revelers will shift their hootin’ and hollerin’ Friday from hoops to horse racing when the 15-day spring meet opens at Keeneland Race Course.

“It’s spring time in Kentucky,” said Keeneland director of racing Rogers Beasley. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

Actually, things could be better on the Kentucky racing circuit, given that the state legislature once again spent another winter without enabling alternative gaming at state racetracks. That, of course, is a whole other story, and the focus for the next four weeks will be on the major-league racing that will take place here through April 27 and at Churchill Downs through the May 5 Kentucky Derby.

Purses at Keeneland remain among the highest in North America, averaging nearly $600,000 per program. And while some horsemen who normally stop over on their way home to New York from Gulfstream Park or Fair Grounds will not be quite as prominent as in prior years due to the increased purse structure at Aqueduct thanks to the track’s new casino, they still will make their presence felt. Trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, and Barclay Tagg did not ship as many horses here as before, but one of the rising stars in racing, Chad Brown, sent a stable of 32 and was in the stands during training hours Wednesday.

“I’ll be here for the next couple of weeks,” Brown said.

“We feel pretty fortunate that we don’t seem to be feeling the effects of what New York is doing quite yet,” Beasley said. “Overall, the number of horses might be down slightly, but we should have another really outstanding meet. Our stakes schedule is as good as anywhere in the country in April, and we’re really hearing a lot of enthusiasm from the horsemen.”

The stakes schedule consists of 16 races, all but one of them graded, and begins Friday with the Grade 3, $100,000 Transylvania for 3-year-olds on the turf. The first of five Grade 1 races, the $500,000 Ashland, will be run Saturday, and then the other four will be run next week: the $300,000 Vinery Madison on April 12, the $300,000 Maker’s 46 Mile on April 13, and the $750,000 Blue Grass and $300,000 Jenny Wiley on April 14.

The Blue Grass, long regarded as a major Derby prep, already is shaping up with a sizable field, with probable starters including Hansen, Dullahan, Drill, Ever So Lucky, Prospective, and Scatman.

The Transylvania, the ninth of 10 Friday races, has Monastic as the 5-2 morning-line favorite, but the race figures very competitive on paper, with five of the seven starters having been pegged at 6-1 or lower.

The opener also includes four allowances (races 4, 5, 7, 8), the last of which marks the return of Successful Dan, potentially one of the top older horses in America this year. The meet starts with one of those popular “baby” races for 2-year-old maidens at 4 1/2 furlongs.

The Keeneland jockeys’ room, as usual, will overflow with talent, with regulars such as Robby Albarado, Julien Leparoux, and Kent Desormeaux being joined on occasion by the likes of John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Rajiv Maragh, and Calvin Borel.

TVG will have a major ontrack presence throughout the meet, while the NBC networks also will be on hand for the Ashland and Blue Grass.

The opening-day forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 63.