10/02/2001 12:00AM

Time's right for big weekend at Keeneland

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - In a perfect world, a 17-day race meet would hit several high points, using major attractions at various intervals to ensure that public interest lasted from start to finish.

But when Keeneland opens its 2001 fall meet Friday, the track will exhaust virtually all of its firepower during the first three days of racing. By running six graded races, all of which serve as potential preps for the Oct. 27 World Thoroughbred Championships, during the Friday-to-Sunday weekend that opens the meet, Keeneland essentially will deplete itself of high-profile stakes races for its remaining 14 programs.

"It's reality, whether we like it or not," Nick Nicholson, president of Keeneland, said Tuesday. "All of these races are major Breeders' Cup preps, and if you're going to do what's in the best interest of the races, you have to have them where they are."

The reasoning behind such a front-loaded schedule is self-explanatory. To run any of these major races any later than opening weekend would be to render them irrelevant in terms of the Breeders' Cup races on Championships Day, since the vast majority of horsemen today prefer no less than three weeks between starts for their best runners.

In previous years, when the Breeders' Cup races were run on the first Saturday in November, Keeneland was able to space out its major preps during the first two weekends because of the four-week and three-week "out" periods.

This year, Keeneland fans are warned to enjoy it while it lasts, to make a celebration of what will easily be the most important weekend of racing on this circuit since early May, when the Kentucky Derby and surrounding features were held. Keeneland management has grasped that notion by naming the whirlwind of stakes activity Fall Stars Weekend.

Regardless of how it is advertised, the racing should be sensational.

Jockeys such as Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey, and Chris McCarron are scheduled to ride in some of the races, along with regulars Pat Day, Robby Albarado, and others. The race that for many years was billed as the highlight of the fall meet - the Spinster, now known as the Overbrook Spinster Stakes - still

appears to be coming up the best of all the preps. Aside from the Grade 1, $500,000 Spinster, the other five races all carry Grade 2 rankings.

From the start, an early preview of what is on tap:

Friday: At least eight 2-year-old fillies are expected for the $400,000 Walmac International Alcibiades Stakes. Stevens and Bailey have mounts on major contenders in Jilbab and Playing 'n Gold, respectively. Other probables are Exotic Wager, First Again, Never Out, Smok'n Frolic, and Take Charge Lady.

The $500,000 WinStar Galaxy should be very competitive. Tout Charmant, who won this 1 3/16-mile grass race last year, will be back with McCarron aboard. Her challengers will include Crystal Sea, Doubly Fun, La Ronge, Megans Bluff, Nuit de Siam, Preseli, Princess Ellen, Solvig, Spook Express, and Veil of Avalon. Only 10 can start in turf races here.

Saturday: Hook and Ladder, Texas Glitter, and Snow Ridge have surfaced as the primary challengers to Bet on Sunshine in the $250,000 Phoenix Stakes. A field of about seven appears likely. This will be the fifth time that Bet on Sunshine has run in the Phoenix.

The $400,000 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity has no standout 2-year-old.

Probables are Burnt Ember, Gold Dollar, Harlan's Holiday, Juggernaut, Kamsack, Metatron, Request for Parole, Siphonic, Sunkosi, and Truman's Raider.

Sunday: Ten fillies and mares could make up one of the most contentious Spinsters in years. Lazy Slusan and Pompeii, both Grade 1 winners this year, should rank among the favorites, along with the resurgent 3-year-old filly Unbridled Elaine. Other probables include Miss Linda, Precious Feather, Printemps, Royal Fair, Secret Status, Starrer, and Vivid Sunset.

The $500,000 Keeneland Shadwell Turf Mile should help clarify the picture for the BC Mile. Hap, with Bailey to ride, could be a lukewarm favorite, while Brahms, Quiet Resolve, and North East Bound will take solid action, too. Other prospects are Aly's Alley, Mr. Livingston, Union One, and Where's Taylor. Trainer Chris Clement may run the filly Penny's Gold because of the favorable one-mile distance, although suitable travel from New York had yet to be secured Tuesday.

French toast

Not only will the Spinster and Shadwell Mile be run here Sunday afternoon, but early-rising fans wanting to catch the pinnacle of the French racing season can do so over breakfast at Keeneland.

The track is calling it a beignet breakfast, during which the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and five other races from Longchamp will be available for simulcast wagering. The first simulcast race is set for 9 a.m. Eastern, with the Arc to be run at 11:30.

Past performances for the French card will be available beginning Friday afternoon.

*Four nongraded stakes also will be run during the first three days. Perhaps the most intriguing starter in any of those races will be Radiant, a 5-year-old mare being pointed to the A.P. Indy Stakes. She was bred in India.

*The many Keeneland racegoers who take the escalator nearest the paddock to watch races from the second-floor grandstand will notice major changes this fall. The former bare cement floors of the second-floor lounge area have been covered with an attractive brick tile, and glass partitions and other amenities make for a far more comfortable atmosphere. The renovations are

part of the multiyear, $35 million modernization that Keeneland announced two years ago.

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