04/03/2013 12:53PM

Keeneland: Ward well-stocked, as usual, with 2-year-olds

Courtney Heeney
Centre Court, winning the Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park, is among a group of high-caliber turf fillies listed as probable starters for the April 13 Jenny Wiley.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – It is the transitory nature of horse racing that when a meet opens, interest is sky-high in who will do what – but by the time the meet is over, yesterday’s news is just that, and it’s on to the next venue.

This is particularly true of the front-loaded three-week meets that Keeneland conducts twice a year. Racing fans in Kentucky and beyond look forward with great anticipation to the spring meet all winter and to the fall meet all summer. But then by the time the last few days of a meet roll around, live racing in Lexington is pretty much old hat, and all you hear about is the impending Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup.

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This all matters little to Wesley Ward, who seems to have been denied some of his props last year when sweeping both the spring- and fall-meet titles for top trainer at Keeneland, where the 2013 spring meet kicks off Friday. Ward was only the third trainer since 1994 to win or share both meet titles in the same calendar year, although the giant shadows of the Derby and Breeders’ Cup seemed to render those rare feats as footnotes.

“Should they have this big ceremony Friday and bring up stuff that happened six months ago, a year ago, just so I can get some recognition?” Ward joked before quickly answering his own question: “Um, like, I don’t think too many people care.”

That may be true to a degree, but it won’t preclude fans and rival horsemen from keeping close tabs on Ward this spring. Ward, 45, a native of Washington state, said he has his usual arsenal of 2-year-olds “very much” at the ready and plans to waste little time returning to familiar stomping grounds in the Keeneland winner’s circle.

Ward, best known for his prowess with precocious young horses, has entries in four races on the 10-race opening-day card. Most notable are the stable entry of Sweet Emma Rose and Tomei in the first 2-year-old race in Kentucky this year (race 4), and the uncoupled pair of Amen Kitten and Redwood Kitten in the Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes (race 9).

Ward owns Tomei in partnership with Joe Pesci, the famous actor and a longtime client of Ward’s. Tomei, a homebred daughter of first-year sire Thewayyouare, is named for Marisa Tomei, who co-starred with Pesci in the 1992 farcical comedy, “My Cousin Vinny.”

“She can fly,” said Ward, referring, of course, to the unstarted filly and not necessarily the 48-year-old actress.

Ward said he has “quite a few” 2-year-olds among the 50 stalls he was allotted at Keeneland this spring and that he should be well-represented in all four of the 2-year-old races scheduled at the 16-day meet (one is in the condition book for every Friday).

For the record, Steve Asmussen (2004) and Ken McPeek (2011) are the only trainers with same-year Keeneland training titles since 1994, when D. Wayne Lukas tied with Carl Nafzger at the spring meet and with Neil Howard in the fall. Asmussen tied atop the 2004 fall standings with Nick Zito, while McPeek won both of his outright.

Ward would be the first to win as many as three consecutive outright Keeneland titles since Lukas won four in a row (fall 1990 through spring 1992).

Stevens plans to ride frequently in Kentucky

Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey who returned to competitive riding in January after a seven-year absence, will begin riding at Keeneland next Wednesday after remaining in California this weekend to ride in the Santa Anita Derby and other races.

“I’ll be back in Kentucky on Tuesday,” said Stevens. “I only plan to miss two days after that,” those being April 13 (Arkansas Derby) and April 21 (San Juan Capistrano on closing day at Santa Anita). He also plans to ride throughout the Churchill Downs spring meet.

Stevens, 50, still maintains a home in the Lake Forest section of Louisville. Contrary to what was originally planned – veteran agent Craig O’Bryan was supposed to be here from California – Stevens will be represented instead by Terry Miller.

Miller will still work for Corey Lanerie, who was the leading jockey at Churchill last spring and fall. Lanerie, who enjoyed a productive last few months when riding 29 winners at the Gulfstream Park meet that ends Friday, is named to ride nine of the 10 opening-day races here.

Jenny Wiley coming up strong

Rusty Arnold is among those marveling at the depth of the upcoming Jenny Wiley Stakes, a Grade 1 race to be run a week from Saturday, April 13, on a blockbuster Blue Grass Stakes undercard.

Arnold trains Centre Court, whose eye-catching victory in the Grade 2 Honey Fox at Gulfstream last month would seem to help make her a standout in the $300,000 Jenny Wiley – until you realize that Dayatthespa, Daisy Devine, and Samitar are among the other fillies and mares likely for the 1 1/16-mile turf fixture.

“The race is unreal,” said Arnold, a wry, well-traveled, 58-year-old Lexington native whose streak of “a winner at every Keeneland meet since 1986 (except for one in the late ‘80s in which he didn’t have a starter)” is documented like clockwork every meet by the Keeneland publicity department.

Arnold said he “wouldn’t mind” keeping the streak alive by having Centre Court win the Jenny Wiley.

“If we can’t have that, then maybe we can find a bottom-end maiden-claimer we can get lucky in,” he said with a smile.

Meanwhile, another standout in the female turf division, Marketing Mix, will not make the Wiley, said trainer Tom Proctor, adding there may be “an outside chance” the 5-year-old mare will be ready in time for the Grade 2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile on the May 4 Kentucky Derby undercard.

Road construction will hinder traffic flow

Not surprisingly, the top 10 (and surely more) Keeneland attendance records were set on Saturdays, led by the 40,617 who thronged the joint last year on Blue Grass Stakes Day.

But it would take a minor miracle for anything even close to a record to occur this Saturday. Not only will a Final Four appearance by the University of Louisville (tip off, 6:09 p.m. Eastern) keep an untold number of fans away, but the major construction under way on Versailles Road (U.S. 60), the primary local access road into Keeneland, undoubtedly will have many more avoiding such aggravation.

The construction is scheduled to continue throughout the spring meet and, in all likelihood, will impact the fall meet in October as well. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has announced that the project, which began in February, is expected to take 10 months to complete.