Updated on 09/18/2011 2:12AM

Renovations add sparkle to fall meet

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A horse exercises on Keeneland's new Polytrack surface.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It is cause for celebration in any other year, this reopening of Keeneland as the leaves begin to turn. But in the wake of a massive renovation that was undertaken and completed since racing was last held here in late April, the excitement surrounding the Friday opening of the fall meet at Keeneland is almost boundless.

A new Polytrack surface is the centerpiece of the sweeping overhaul at Keeneland, where the start of a 17-day meet will happen to coincide with some of the finest racing in America. The Friday feature, the Grade 2 Alcibiades Stakes, is one of six graded races that should prove crucial in shaping the outlook for the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup championships at Churchill Downs.

The installation of Polytrack has led prominent horsemen who otherwise would not have accepted stall space on the Keeneland backstretch to do just that, and it is their enthusiasm for the synthetic surface that portends a highly successful meet - not to mention a great start to a new era in Keeneland's remarkable 70-year history.

"The anticipation that has been building toward opening day has been just unbelievable," said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman.

Besides Polytrack, the many new features of the renovation include a substantial reconfiguration of the track, with the turns widened and elevations altered to make for greater symmetry throughout the 1 1/16-mile circumference; new marker poles and track railings; a new high-definition tote board that Rogers Beasley, director of racing at Keeneland, called "second to none in the world of racing"; and other breakthrough telecommunications and broadcast technologies, including the revolutionary race-tracking video system known as Trakus.

Fans using Trakus in an attempt to improve their handicapping or luck had better be tied on when the Alcibiades rolls around as the ninth of 10 Friday races. Scheduled to have a Polytrack maximum of 14 starters, all of them 2-year-old fillies, the $400,000 Alcibiades figures to be a revealing test for Appealing Zophie, who was assigned post 8 in the 1 1/16-mile race. Appealing Zophie won her debut here in April, coasting by 10 1/2 lengths over the old dirt surface, before taking the Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga by 5 1/4 lengths on Sept. 3.

"Obviously we're hoping she can continue being successful when moving to Polytrack and stretching out," said Scott Blasi, who trains the Florida-bred filly for Heiligbrodt Racing Stable.

Among the many capable challengers to Appealing Zophie is one who had the misfortune of drawing the far outside post: Lisa M, whose latest start resulted in a 35-1 upset of the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Lassie on Sept. 10.

"I'd bet she was 25 lengths out of it at one point in the Lassie," said trainer Dave Kassen. "She was absolutely flying at the end. We don't know what she beat that day, but I do think she's a decent filly. We'll find out Friday, just like a lot of other people will be finding out about their horses."

Two other stakes winners are in the Alcibiades field: Untouched Talent, winner of the Sorrento at Del Mar, and Cotton Blossom, winner of the Schuylerville at Saratoga.

The Alcibiades leads off what Keeneland calls "FallStars Weekend," a series of high-dollar races that are front-loaded at the fall meet so as to make them calendar-friendly for the 23rd Breeders' Cup four weeks later. Three Grade 1 races will be run before the weekend is out: the Shadwell Turf Mile and Breeders' Futurity on Saturday, and the Spinster on Sunday.

The depth of the jockey and trainer colonies at this meet would be exceedingly difficult to surpass. While the race for leading rider might well come down to Julien Leparoux and Rafael Bejarano, the youthful duo who tied for the spring riding crown with 17 wins each, they will be joined on a periodic basis by such nationally prominent jockeys as Garrett Gomez, Edgar Prado, and Patrick Valenzuela, all of whom will be here Friday for the Alcibiades. As for star trainers, Todd Pletcher, who is well on his way to a third straight Eclipse Award, will be among those planning to be very active throughout the meet.

Keeneland once again will offer 10-cent superfectas, having been the first major track to do so when they were introduced at the 2005 spring meet. And for the first time, beginning Friday, the track will offer pick four wagers in 50-cent increments. As a kickoff bonus, the final pick four (races 7-10) on Friday will carry a $100,000 guaranteed pool.

Kurt Becker, the only race-caller in track history, will be on hand for his 20th meet. Television coverage will be plentiful, with ESPN crews on hand the next two weekends and TVG prominent throughout the meet.

The weather forecast for the entire weekend calls for sunny skies and mostly cool temperatures. The Friday high is expected to reach only about 60.

Besides the Alcibiades, the Friday opener also includes the Grade 3 Sycamore Stakes (race 8) and four allowances (races 4, 6, 7, and 10).