04/06/2005 12:00AM

Meet's purses in full bloom

Purses for Keeneland's 16-day meet are scheduled to average $650,000, a North American record.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - There are sure signs that the richness of spring has arrived in central Kentucky. Not to downplay the allure of budding foliage and milder weather, but it's the beginning of big-money racing at Keeneland that thaws the heart of many a racing fan.

Friday marks the start of another three weeks of an embarrassment of racing riches. Purses at the 16-day spring meet are scheduled to average about $650,000, a North American record, and it only stands to reason that the best horses and horsemen are hot on the money trail.

"We're expecting a great meet, with all the best horses, trainers, and jockeys," said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman. "The centerpiece races of the meet, the Ashland and Blue Grass, are both coming up outstanding races, and we're going to try to work off those the whole meet."

The Grade 1 Ashland Stakes, a key prep for the Kentucky Oaks, is the focus of the three-day opening weekend, while the April 16 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, a Grade 1 prep for the Kentucky Derby, is the highlight of the following weekend. The Blue Grass is expected to attract several of the top contenders for the May 7 Derby, including Sun King, Bandini, High Limit, and Consolidator.

Huffman said record purse levels are largely attributable to a $350,000 boost in the 19-race stakes schedule and a $2,000 to $3,000 boost for every claiming race.

"Our claiming races were kind of a weak link, but we found some money to raise the purses for them, too," he said.

Even with Pat Day sidelined by recent hip surgery, the Keeneland jockey colony is perhaps the strongest in track history. Hall of Fame members Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, and Mike Smith will ride here daily, and are joined by such established stars as Edgar Prado, John Velazquez, Jose Santos, Robby Albarado, and Rafael Bejarano. Trainers such as Bobby Frankel, D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, and Nick Zito should have little trouble getting suitable help when their horses walk out of Keeneland's resplendent paddock.

The opening-day feature is the $150,000 Transylvania Stakes, a one-mile turf race in which Velazquez will ride the solid favorite, Dubleo. He is trained by Pletcher, the 2004 Eclipse Award winner, who shipped in some 30 horses to Keeneland last week from south Florida.

"We thought he'd fit that spot pretty well," said Pletcher.

Dubleo, a Southern Halo colt who has won 5 of 6 career turf starts, drew post 7 in a field of nine 3-year-olds entered for the 17th running of the Transylvania. In his last start, Dubleo, true to his running style, pressed the early pace before edging clear for a half-length triumph in the Feb. 27 Dave Feldman Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

The most accomplished challengers to Dubleo appear to be the Frankel-trained Chattahoochee War, winner of the Hill Rise Stakes at Santa Anita in January, and Rey de Cafe, winner of the Bourbon County Stakes here last fall for trainer Rusty Arnold.

The Friday opener marks the first 2-year-old race of the year in Kentucky; it goes as race 2. Likely favorites are Yaddo Cat, trained by Asmussen, and King Shooting Star, trained by Wesley Ward. Four allowances (races 3, 5, 6, and 7) also are carded, with the minimum purse being $54,000.

The spring meet also marks the debut of 10-cent superfectas. Fans can bet those smaller increments in an attempt to increase their chances to win while lessening their outlay, a new and welcome wagering trend.

The weather forecast for opening day calls for a high temperature of 63, with scattered Thursday showers continuing into Friday morning, then stopping.

* Friday is College Day. Keeneland, in partnership with the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, will raffle off $1,000 college scholarships after each race. Winners must be present to claim their prizes.