12/18/2003 1:00AM

As usual, spring rich with stakes


Keeneland Race Course on Thursday released a stakes schedule with the usual riches and very little change to the status quo for the Lexington, Ky., track's 2004 spring meet.

Nineteen stakes, or at least one per day for the 15-day meet that runs April 2-23, will be worth $3,775,000. As always, the richest and most prestigious of those races is the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, a crucial Kentucky Derby stepping-stone that will be run April 10. The Grade 1 Blue Grass is one of 14 graded races on the schedule.

The only notable changes involve sponsorship and scheduling. Vinery Farm is the new sponsor of the $175,000 Vinery Madison Stakes, a filly-mare sprint that had its purse boosted by $50,000. And the Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings, a Grade 1 steeplechase, has been moved to April 16, one week earlier than its customary spot on closing day.

Other major races on the schedule are the Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland Stakes on April 3; the Grade 2, $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes on April 17; the Grade 2, $250,000 Stonerside Beaumont Stakes on April 8; the Grade 2, $200,000 Maker's Mark Mile on April 9; and the Grade 2, $250,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup on April 10.

As usual, most of the better stakes will be run earlier in the meet to provide sufficient time leading up to the major races during Derby Week at Churchill Downs.