04/08/2005 12:00AM

A thrilling finish, and away we go

Bill Straus
Opening day of Keeneland's 16-day spring meet Friday attracted 15,811 racing fans.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The tone has been set. A frantic three-horse finish amid spectacular spring weather got the Keeneland meet off to a rousing start Friday, when a crowd of 15,811 watched Chattahoochee War nose out Guillaume Tell and Rey de Cafe in the featured Grade 3 .

Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel counted himself happy to be a part of the festivities. Frankel could not take his eyes off a grandstand television monitor in the aftermath of the Transylvania, and after an anxious few minutes, Frankel suddenly threw up his hands and yelled, "Yeah!"

Chattahoochee War, ridden by Jerry Bailey, had rallied from fourth racing just outside another stretch-runner, Guillaume Tell. With just a few yards to go, the pair surged past Rey de Cafe, who had drawn clear in midstretch after boldly taking command from Dubleo and Moth Ball. Finally, the photo-finish camera determined that Chattahoochee War had beaten Guillaume Tell to the wire by a couple of inches.

Rey de Cafe finished just another neck back in third, while Dubleo, the even-money favorite in a field of eight 3-year-olds, was another six lengths back in fourth.

Chattahoochee War returned $8.60 as second choice after finishing one mile in 1:35.28 over a firm turf. In his last start, Chattahoochee War, by War Chant, had finished fourth in the March 19 Pasadena Stakes at Santa Anita after starting from the far outside post.

"He really had no chance that day," said Frankel. "This set up a lot better for him. It's a great thrill to have the first horse I sent over here win."

An objection against Chattahoochee War by Guillaume Tell's jockey, Rafael Bejarano, for alleged stretch interference was quickly dismissed.

The $150,000 Transylvania was the highlight of a nine-race card that strongly suggested the caliber of racing will justify the projected $650,000 per-day purse levels at Keeneland this spring.

One race earlier, Swingforthefences ($8.80) got a terrific ride from Bailey before pulling away to win a third-level, seven-furlong allowance by 1 3/4 lengths. Winner of the Iowa Derby last summer, Swingforthefences was making his first start in more than six months.

"He kind of crashed on me last fall, so I backed off on him," said trainer Rick Violette. "We've discussed running him back in the Pimlico Special, but I'm about two weeks behind schedule with him, so I'm inclined to look elsewhere for now. But it was a very good comeback race for him."

Opening day started with a veritable chalk parade. El Prado Rob ($4.40), dipping into the claiming ranks for the first time, led all the way under Bejarano, giving Nick Zito a head start on what he hopes will be another successful meet. Zito, who tied for leading trainer here last fall, will run Sun King in the meet highlight, the April 16 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

"It's an honor to win the first race of the meet," said Zito. "You're talking a lot of tradition here. It's like going back in time, back to the olden days. It's a great thrill winning any time here."

The second race of the day, a 4 1/2-furlong dash that marked the first 2-year-old race in Kentucky this year, resulted in an easy win for Yaddo Cat ($3), ridden by Corey Lanerie and trained by Steve Asmussen. The race was contested by just five juveniles after three, including $1.1 million yearling purchase King Shooting Star, were scratched.

The third race also was won by the favorite, Psych ($5.40), who outfought Weatherwise in a lengthy stretch duel. Robby Albarado was on the winner.

The 16-day spring meet runs through April 29.