10/01/2003 12:00AM

Racing at its finest

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Stars who will run on opening weekend include Beau's Town in the Phoenix, Honor in War (above) in the Shadwell Mile, and Take Charge Lady in the Spinster.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It's all about the racing.

To many people, October at Keeneland means a chance to savor the crisp autumn air, the ripening fall foliage, the reacquainting with old friends, the roar of a long-absent crowd, the allure of people-watching, and the wafting aroma of burgoo and popcorn.

But to tens of thousands of horseplayers throughout North America, all of those aesthetics fall dozens of lengths behind what Keeneland is really about: racing at its finest.

That point will be driven home this weekend when six stakes, all with potential implications for the Breeders' Cup, open the 17-day fall meet at Keeneland. The Shadwell Mile and Overbrook Spinster, both with Grade 1 rankings, are the nominal highlights of a blockbuster three-day weekend, but they are just two in a barrage of high-dollar races that could carry substantial impact toward the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

The meet opens Friday with the $250,000 Phoenix Breeders' Cup Stakes and $400,000 Darley Alcibiades Stakes, which figure to produce starters in the BC Sprint and Juvenile Fillies, respectively. The Grade 3 Phoenix, carded as the seventh of 10 races, has the Arkansas-bred standout Beau's Town as the horse to beat in a field of eight.

The logical favorite in the Grade 2 Alcibiades (race 9) is Lokoya, part of the seemingly endless supply of talent from Todd Pletcher's juggernaut stable, but most of the other six 2-year-old fillies entered in the 1 1/16-mile race have a rightful claim to legitimacy. Trainer Ken McPeek will bring forth two promising fillies, Galloping Gal and Deb's Charm, from his Louisville base; D. Wayne Lukas has his best hope for the Breeders' Cup in Be Gentle, runner-up to unbeaten Ashado in the Spinaway at Saratoga; and Steve Asmussen is represented by Sweet Jo Jo, winner of the Fisher Debutante at Ellis Park two starts back.

Yet the wild card of the group is probably In Rome, who rallied to defeat a respectable group in her last start, the Aug. 30 Bassinet Stakes at River Downs. Pat Day, Keeneland's all-time leading rider who will turn 50 on Oct. 13, has claimed the mount on In Rome, a development that seems to lend credence to trainer David Vance's belief that In Rome stands to improve with time and distance. The Alcibiades marks her first start beyond six furlongs.

"She's a big, gangly filly that still doesn't have the game figured out," said Vance. "She'll get better when she gets a little more ground to cover, I can almost guarantee you that."

In Rome, by Saint Ballado, is owned by Carl Pollard, who won the 2000 BC Juvenile Fillies with longshot Caressing, trained by Vance. Like most horses that race at Keeneland, the fruits of her efforts might well be affected by a track bias that frequently has been known to favor speed.

"At Keeneland, you worry about that a little bit," said Pletcher. "As a rule, Keeneland can be the most biased racetrack in the country. It's generally a very inside speed-favoring track, and you might even say there's a conveyor belt on the rail."

Purse levels at Keeneland again have been set at the highest levels: racing secretary Ben Huffman said he expects daily purses to average more than $600,000, a number that accounts for the classy brand of racing that will be commonplace throughout the meet.

Except for Oct. 24 and 25, 10-race cards will be the norm every Friday and Saturday at Keeneland. Besides the two stakes, the balance of the opening-day card includes four allowance races.

Television Games Network will provide expanded coverage of opening day and most of the rest of the weekend. CNBC will telecast the Breeders' Futurity on Saturday.

The weather in the Lexington area has been cooler than normal for this time of year, and that trend is scheduled to hold through the weekend. The forecasted high temperature for Friday and Saturday is 62, and only 57 for Sunday.

Kurt Becker, the only full-time race-caller in Keeneland history, will be back in the booth for the 14th straight meet. Keeneland began using a public address system at the 1997 spring meet.