03/31/2015 1:30PM

Transylvania comes up strong for Keeneland opener

Benoit & Associates
Luck of the Kitten will be one of the favorites in a loaded Transylvania Stakes on the Keeneland opening-day card.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Keeneland spring meet figures to get away quicker than a Wesley Ward 2-year-old, with a revamped schedule that’s more front-loaded than ever before.

By Tuesday afternoon, entries already were drawn for the first two days of the 15-day meet, with 10 races carded for Friday and a blockbuster 11-race program set for Saturday. The Saturday card will include five graded stakes, anchored by the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, which Keeneland racing officials are hoping to restore to its former glory with a new date and a higher purse.

First comes a Friday opener featuring the Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes, a one-mile turf race with a 13-horse field that has a talent level seemingly more worthy than its $100,000 purse. Luck of the Kitten, making his first start since finishing second to his Ward stablemate Hootenanny in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall at Santa Anita, will be one of the favorites for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, the perennial leading owners at their hometown track.

“He should be ready to go for this race,” said Ward.

Luck of the Kitten will be ridden by Mike Smith, the California-based Hall of Famer who will be one of a number of world-class riders to compete here this spring. On big days, the jockey roster at Keeneland is unmatched anywhere, with Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, and others among those having been named in the Transylvania.

The Transylvania field also includes a pair of winners of Grade 3 turf stakes at Gulfstream Park this winter, Eh Cumpari and Night Prowler.

Aside from the feature, the opening-day card is a bit light on entries, with the other nine races averaging a maximum of 8.44 betting interests. This is the second meet at Keeneland since dirt replaced Polytrack as the main racing surface; last fall, field size averaged 8.44 per race, down from 9.09 the previous spring, the final Polytrack meet.

Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman said he has heard “zero” complaints about the dirt surface. Meanwhile, the turf appears to be in terrific shape despite the harsh winter, and turf workouts took place here Tuesday morning with “dogs” well out onto the course.

By Saturday, the meet already will be in full gear. Besides the Blue Grass, for which Carpe Diem was expected to head a field of nine Kentucky Derby hopefuls, the other stakes on tap are the Grade 1 Ashland, Grade 1 Madison, Grade 3 Commonwealth, and Grade 3 Shakertown.

Keeneland has changed the date of the Blue Grass, moving it back so that it is now four weeks prior to the Derby instead of three, and the purse, increasing it from $750,000 to $1 million. This will be the first Blue Grass on dirt since 2006. The last Blue Grass winner to win the Derby remains Strike the Gold in 1991.

The Friday weather forecast calls for a chance of rain and a high temperature of 64, with Saturday likely to be sunny but cooler. Keeneland officials are wondering how attendance will be affected Saturday with the unbeaten University of Kentucky basketball team playing later that evening in Indianapolis in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Last year, Blue Grass attendance was 39,722, the second-highest in track history.

First post daily at the meet, which runs through April 24, will be 1:05 p.m. Eastern, except for the first two Saturdays (12:35). Friday is College Day, with $1,000 college scholarships being raffled off following every race. There is no racing here Sunday because of the Easter holiday.

In the fall, Keeneland will host the Breeders’ Cup championships for the first time. Tangible changes can already be seen around the track, most notably above the paddock outside the stone-wall perimeter, where a new chalet recently was put into place.