04/02/2008 12:00AM

Springtime for racing

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Proud Spell will run in the Ashland on Saturday at Keeneland, one of four Grade 1 stakes scheduled during the track's 16-day spring meet.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Good thing the racing will be far better than the weather. Opening day at Keeneland is supposed to bring rain, wind, and cold in a metaphorical opposite to the sunny days that lay ahead on the Kentucky racing circuit.

Indeed, with a 16-day spring meet that trumpets the unofficial arrival of spring, Keeneland ushers in the most exciting span of the Kentucky racing calendar. A 10-race Friday program, anchored by the $150,000 Transylvania Stakes, starts what should be a ceaseless procession of high-quality racing that once again has drawn the best trainers and jockeys in North America to this pastoral corner of the world.

Through meet's end on April 25, Keeneland will serve as a melting pot for jockeys such as Garrett Gomez, Edgar Prado, John Velazquez, and Robby Albarado; for trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Bill Mott, and Bobby Frankel; and, perhaps most notably, for horses such as Pyro, who will be favored in the meet highlight, the Blue Grass Stakes on April 12, and his stablemate, Curlin, the Dubai World Cup winner, who will not race here but is expected to take up residence on the backstretch within the next few days.

"It really should be a sensational meet," said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman.

Four Grade 1 races are on tap, with the $500,000 Ashland Stakes leading off on Saturday. With Proud Spell and Country Star vying for favoritism in a field of seven, the Ashland shapes up as easily the most important prep so far for the May 2 Kentucky Oaks.

In a similar vein, the Grade 1 Blue Grass will have major implications toward the 134th Kentucky Derby, which culminates four fantastic weeks of Kentucky racing on May 3 at Churchill Downs. Pyro, winner of the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby in his two starts at 3, will be a solid choice in a Blue Grass that is also expected to draw such Derby hopefuls as Cool Coal Man, Visionaire, Monba, and Cowboy Cal.

The other Grade 1 races on a $4.4omillion stakes schedule are the Maker's Mark Mile on April 11, and a steeplechase race, the Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings, on April 17. In all, 19 stakes, 16 of them graded, will be run during the meet.

First comes the Grade 3 Transylvania, which looks like a prime opportunity for Mott to get off to a good start. Mott, who topped the 2007 fall standings with nine wins for the fourth Keeneland title of his Hall of Fame career, will be represented by the uncoupled duo of Riley Tucker and Prussian, with the latter figuring as a solid favorite in a field of nine 3-year-old turf specialists.

Prussian, bred and owned by Monticule LLC, was terrific in winning his first two starts last year before struggling in his season finale over a soggy course in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last October. Regrouped with a steady series of workouts, the Danzig colt will break from post 4 under Kent Desormeaux in the 1 1/16-mile turf race.

The Transylvania, carded as the ninth race, is part of a late pick four that carries a guaranteed $200,000 pool. The guarantee will be in effect every Friday on the late pick four. One of the first tracks with 10-cent superfectas, Keeneland this meet is adding a Super High Five, which requires picking the first five finishers, in order, in the last race of the day. The bet has a $1 minimum, with a carryover resulting in case of no perfect tickets.

Keeneland also offers 50-cent pick fours and trifectas. The track also will offer its first two-day wager this year with a daily double on the Maker's Mark Mile and Blue Grass.

This will be the fourth meet at Keeneland since Polytrack was installed as the main racing surface in time for the 2006 fall meet. Once bemoaned as a place with a pronounced inside-speed bias, the track since has undergone a remarkable transformation, with Polytrack races frequently being won by closers racing far from the rail.

TVG will have a major presence throughout the meet, with much of the network's specialty programs based at the track.

Kurt Becker, the only race-caller Keeneland has employed since first installing a public-address system in 1997, will be back in the booth.

The weather forecast for Friday calls for a high of 59 degrees, with thunderstorms likely to keep most fans huddled under cover.