04/03/2002 12:00AM

Racing's creme de la creme


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Their slogan once was "All Roads Lead to Keeneland," but that was when everyone had to pile in their cars to come to the track. Nowadays, world-wide technology is such that the depth and richness of racing at Keeneland can be appreciated by almost anyone anywhere. That, as they now say, is a good thing.

Still, the Keeneland experience is something that can only be appreciated first-hand, which helps to explain why, starting Friday, racing fans again will flock to this pastoral outpost for the next three weeks. Once on site, they will be treated to a brand of racing that is lauded throughout the world for its superiority.

The opening-day feature is the $100,000 Transylvania Stakes, a one-mile turf race. Foremost among the field of 3-year-olds is Political Attack, a two-time stakes winner whose strength is racing on grass. His opposition includes such promising runners as Mr. O'brien, a very highly regarded colt trained by Michael Dickinson, and Flying Dash, a German import owned by Fusao Sekiguchi, who won the 2000 Kentucky Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus. A field of eight was entered.

The Transylvania is the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of how classy and competitive the racing figures to be at the spring meet. Purses are expected to average over $610,000 per day, which would be the highest of any track in North America. There will be at least one stakes a day, and 19 overall, worth a total of more than $3.65 million. Top trainers and jockeys from all over the country will be present throughout the meet.

"We really believe this will be one of our outstanding race meets," said Rogers Beasley, director of racing and a 20-year Keeneland veteran. "We've got all the right horses nominated to the right races. It should be great."

There are some alterations to the wagering menu - most notably, the addition of a quinella, and a pick six with a 12 percent takeout replacing the short-lived pick five. Unlike last fall, when Keeneland experimented with an across-the-board takeout of 16 percent, only win-place-show wagers will be offered at that low rate, while the takeout for all exotic wagers is now 19 percent.

Steve Crist and Dave Litfin of Daily Racing Form will speak at an 11:45 a.m. paddock seminar Friday and autograph books later in the afternoon.

The opening-day forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and highs in the mid-50's.