04/05/2013 3:31PM

Keeneland: Ramsey, Ward quickly make their usual impact


LEXINGTON, Ky. – Difficult to say what was wider: the grin on Ken Ramsey’s face, or the margin by which a 2-year-old rocket named Sweet Emma Rose won the fourth race.

Either way, it was business as usual at Keeneland, where the 16-day spring meet opened Friday with Ramsey sweeping the early daily double and trainer Wesley Ward winning with a first-time-starting 2-year-old.

Ramsey, a perennial leading owner on the Kentucky circuit and easily the top owner at the Gulfstream Park meet that ended Friday, made no effort to hide his elation after Awesome Flower won the meet opener at a $3.40 mutuel and Starsilhouette returned a half-hour later to pay $5.60 as a slight favorite in race 2. The $2 double paid a mere $8.60.

“We buried ‘em at Gulfstream,” said a guffawing Ramsey, whose horses run in his name and that of his wife, Sarah. “And we’re going to do the same here.”

Indeed, Ramsey is loaded for bear. Not only was he to be represented by four more runners later on the Friday opener, including two in the featured Transylvania Stakes and another solid favorite in the 10th-race finale, but he said he and his trainers plan to bum-rush the entry-box until the meet ends April 26.

“We’ve been looking forward to this meet for a while now,” said Ramsey, 77, a Kentucky native.

Mike Maker trains both of the early Ramsey winners, while Joel Rosario, fresh off a big Gulfstream meet and a victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup aboard Animal Kingdom, got off to a quick start in his first full Keeneland meet by giving both flawless rides.

A little later, it was Ward’s turn to revisit familiar ground in the Keeneland winner’s circle. Sweet Emma Rose ($3) broke like lightning when the gates opened for her and jockey John Velazquez in a 4 1/2-furlong Polytrack dash for 2-year-old maiden fillies, and the bay daughter of City Zip never looked back in winning by nine coasting lengths in a swift 51.94 seconds.

“I’ve got some more back there like that,” said Ward, who has 50 stalls here and was the leading trainer at both the 2012 spring and fall meets.

Ward, who now has won the first 2-year-old race of the spring meet in five of the last seven years, has become widely known here and elsewhere for his prowess with young horses. He said he expects to have starters in each of the eight juvenile races in the condition book at this meet.

Under comfortable temperatures and a hazy sun, fans were leaving precious few open spaces on the track apron by the middle races of the Friday program. Having escaped the traffic problems outside the racetrack gates caused by the reconstruction project on Versailles Road (U.S. 60), the main thoroughfare in and out of this 76-year-old track, they ate burgoo and corned beef, swilled beer in clear cups, and were happy to have live racing back for the next three weeks.

“It doesn’t get any better than Keeneland,” said Justin Dankel, a 37-year-old regular. “My wife had a baby just seven days ago, and I still had to find a way to make it out here.”

Minutes later, Dankel watched intently as Upgrade ($6.20) won the fifth race as a slight favorite for Julien Leparoux and trainer Michelle Nihei. Leparoux, the leading jockey at every Keeneland meet since the 2010 fall stand, figures to get a run for his money from Rosario in trying to extend that five-meet string.

“We will do the best we can,” said Leparoux, 29.