04/02/2009 11:00PM

Stormalory surges from last to first

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Clouds and cold are not exactly what make for the most ideal opening day at Keeneland. But 14,639 fans braved the final grips of winter's chill Friday to witness what amounted to a fine start to the 15-day spring meet.

With many of North America's top jockeys and trainers spending most of their April at Keeneland, the opening card was highlighted by a victory that combined a pair of familiar faces. Stormalory, the 8-5 favorite for jockey Julien Leparoux and trainer Bill Mott, rallied from last to post a neck triumph in the feature, the Grade 3, $150,000 Transylvania Stakes.

Leparoux, a three-time leading rider at Keeneland, said he rode Stormalory with confidence for Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer who was winning his 30th stakes race at Keeneland, including his fourth in the Transylvania.

"I was riding quiet behind," said Leparoux.

Stormalory ($5.40), a Storm Cat colt owned by the Darley Stable, finished 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.73 over a yielding turf course. Smart Bid finished second, a length before another Darley runner, Florentino, the pacesetter, who was not coupled for wagering purposes with the winner.

Mott said Stormalory likely could run back in the May 1 American Turf on the Kentucky Oaks undercard at Churchill Downs.

Amid gloomy skies and mid-40-degree temperatures, Florentino shrugged off his closest pursuer, Orthodox, when turning for home with the lead. Smart Bid, always in striking distance, then made a sustained bid but could not contain the winner's outside rush.

The Transylvania was permitted to stay on the turf, although the only other Friday race originally slated for the grass, the fifth, was transferred to the main Polytrack surface.

Last year, ontrack attendance was 11,561 when all turf races, including the Transylvania, had to be moved to the Polytrack because of wet conditions.

Speed holds well on Polytrack

Early speed was very effective on the Polytrack throughout the 10-race opener, although closers won three races in the middle of the card.

From the nine Poly races, the early leader won six times, including the first four in a row. The trend ended when Vacation ($8.20) surged from eighth under Velazquez to win the fifth, and the next two winners also came from well back. Front-runners then won the last two Poly races.

Overall, it was a formful opener. Favorites won four of the 10 races, and second choices won four more. The most notable exception to that chalky rule came when John Velazquez rode his third winner of the day, Heart of a King ($28.40), who topped an eighth-race superfecta that returned a whopping $9,756.81 for a dime. From a superfecta pool of $84,552, only seven dime tickets were sold on the winning combination.

Ward filly beats baby colts

Wesley Ward did it again. The veteran trainer sent out another filly to beat colts in the first 2-year-old race of the year in Kentucky, doing so in spectacular fashion when Jealous Again ($5) opened immediate daylight on her male rivals and proceeded to win the second race of the card in an 11 1/4-length romp under Velazquez.

Ward, widely known for his prowess with young horses, won the first 2-year-old race of the 2007 spring meet when the filly Yogi'ssplashofgold prevailed by 1 1/4 lengths over Nownownow, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf later that year. A few days later in that meet, Ward sent out yet another 2-year-old filly, One Hot Wish, to crush the boys, as she won by 12 lengths in setting a track record for 4 1/2 furlongs (48.87 seconds) that still stands.

"This early in the year, the fastest fillies are faster than the fastest colts," said Ward. "Or at least that's what I think."

Expansion put on back burner

The ambitious expansion project that Keeneland announced was under consideration last fall essentially has been tabled until further notice, according to track president Nick Nicholson.

Representatives from HOK Sport, a world-class architectural firm, were at Keeneland on opening weekend of the 2008 fall meet to explore what the track would need to undergo a massive renovation, one that ultimately would allow Keeneland to host the Breeders' Cup championships.

But Nicholson said Friday that in light of "the reality of our recent [horse] sales, the overall economy, and the banking situation that currently exists . . . none are conducive to an aggressive construction project."

Nicholson said that just because a possible expansion is on hold does not mean it won't ultimately happen. "Keeneland is an industry institution that's here to stay," he said. "Absolutely, it could happen sometime down the road."

* Churchill Downs on Monday will become the first U.S. racetrack to undergo an accreditation inspection under guidelines issued earlier this year by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. Churchill completed a 48-page written application that serves as the first step in the accreditation process. The alliance was formed last fall to establish uniform standards on a national basis.