03/31/2009 11:00PM

Spring bright spots shine through

Email
Benoit & Associates
Stardom Bound, last year's champion 2-year-old filly, will make her first start outside California and first for trainer Rick Dutrow at Keeneland on Saturday.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Bad news isn't hard to find these days. Keeneland has had its share, for sure, but all will be temporarily forgotten Friday amid the cheery feelings that come with the opening of a new race meet at this bucolic haven.

The first of 15 spring dates is anchored by the $150,000 Transylvania Stakes, one of 17 stakes at a meet that runs through April 24. The prospect of thundering hooves, along with the sights and sounds of a big ontrack crowd, should serve to partly obscure the more troubling developments that continue to envelop the racing industry as a whole and Keeneland in particular.

Within the last year, Keeneland has seen its main revenue sources - horse sales, and wagering on both live and simulcast racing - take substantial plunges. Like other entities responding to the disturbing economic trends that have overwhelmed the United States and other countries, Keeneland is simply trying to ride out this nasty wave in the hopes that the good ol' days will soon return.

"We're certainly not immune to what's happening in the real world," said Rogers Beasley, director of racing at Keeneland.

While the stakes schedule took a hit - two stakes were dropped and purses for several others were lowered, adding up to a $600,000 decrease from last year - the good news is that $3.8 million still will be paid out in stakes. Moreover, purses for all other races have been maintained at the same level as 2008.

"We consciously insured that we'd be able to maintain those overnight levels," said Beasley. "We wanted to retain a sense of normalcy for our horsemen and fans."

The Transylvania, a 1 1/16-mile turf race, should set the tone for what should be another "normal" meet of top-class racing. The field of eight 3-year-olds appears well matched, with Florentino and Orthodox the ones to catch. All eight are still eligible for second-level allowance conditions, but collectively, their past performances are dotted with stakes tries. Skipadate, Smart Bid, Oil Man, and Stormalory all fit that latter category, and none would be a surprise winner.

Oil Man, trained by John Sadler, might be the sleeper. He adds blinkers in search of his first victory since being imported from the United Kingdom. The Irish-bred colt raced twice in stakes company before most recently finishing third in a one-mile turf allowance, all at Santa Anita.

The Transylvania goes as the ninth race on a Friday card that also includes three allowances (races 5, 7, and 8) and the first 2-year-old race of the year in Kentucky (race 2).

Many of the top jockeys in America will ride here most of the meet, most notably Robby Albarado, Kent Desormeaux, Rene Douglas, Garrett Gomez, Julien Leparoux, Edgar Prado, Jamie Theriot, and John Velazquez.

Saturday marks the first of four Grade 1 races at the meet with the 72nd running of the $400,000 Ashland Stakes. The schedule hits full gear next week, when eight stakes will be run, highlighted by the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on April 11.

The economic crunch coincides with a higher general admission price at Keeneland, up from $3 to $5 (season-long passes can be bought for $10 through Sunday). Also, preferred parking spots are being sold for the first time, ranging from $5 to $10, depending on the day of the week.

Keeneland has added rolling $2 daily doubles to an already expansive wagering menu that includes 50-cent trifectas, 50-cent pick fours, dime superfectas, and the familiar array of other exotics. With its Trakus system and other high-tech features, Keeneland was voted No. 1 of 65 tracks by the Horseplayers Association of North America earlier this year.

Wagering on Keeneland races will be available on all four major online platforms - Xbressbet, TVG, Youbet, and twinspires.com. Live online streaming also will be available on those sites and on keeneland.com. Exclusive broadcast rights belong to TVG, which has planned extensive onsite coverage for much of the meet.

First post throughout the meet will be 1:05 p.m. Eastern, five minutes earlier than what had been customary. Races are run every 30 minutes.

The forecast for opening day calls for possible showers, windy conditions, and a high temperature in the low 50s.