04/02/2003 12:00AM

Who's who of trainers converge

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - For handicappers and hard-core racing fans, the aesthetics and amenities that come with the Keeneland spring meet are all fine and dandy.

The blooming shrubs and the well-heeled clientele appeal to the eye. The familiar refrains of longtime bugler Bucky Sallee and the understated tones of race-caller Kurt Becker appeal to the ear. And it almost goes without saying that the steaming burgoo and ice-cold beer appeal to the taste.

But to get the best sense of what horseplayers really like about Keeneland, one need look no further than a stable roster or an overnight sheet. In either spot, a dazzling array of world-class trainers are on full display: Bobby Frankel and Neil Drysdale, Bill Mott and D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher. And on and on and on.

"We've got a pretty good lineup of trainers for this meet," said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman.

The result is a brand of racing that is arguably unsurpassed at any other meeting. For three weeks, horses from the best stables will race against each other after having convened in Kentucky from several winter outposts: Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Fair Grounds, and beyond. There can be little doubt that this melting-pot effect plays a role in the longstanding popularity that Keeneland has long enjoyed among racing fans.

The California flavor is particularly strong this year, with Frankel, Drysdale, Chris Paasch, Bob Hess Jr., Wally Dollase, and Mike Machowsky all having horses based here or at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

From New York by way of Florida, Pletcher and Lukas both have full barns of 32 at Keeneland. Mark Frostad, who had a subpar meet in New Orleans, and Carl Nafzger, who won just one race at Gulfstream, are eligible to break loose here. Other notable trainers with horses ready to run include Patrick Biancone, John Kimmel, Joe Orseno, George Weaver, Barclay Tagg, Al Stall Jr., Mike Stidham, Paul J. McGee, Ronny Werner, and John Pregman.

"The bettors shouldn't have much to complain about," said Huffman.

Purses, charities unaffected

Revenues from the Keeneland sales have been sluggish in recent years, and they figure to take a big hit this year because of the one-time cancellation of the July select sale. Yet neither the massive purse structure that Keeneland offers every spring and fall nor the large dollar amounts of its annual contributions to local charities will be affected, at least for the foreseeable future, said Rogers Beasley, director of racing.

"Fortunately, we have built up a cushion from previous years, but obviously we're hoping this down cycle in the economy won't keep up much longer since the sales are our main producer of income," said Beasley. "Having the financial reserves that allow us to continue with business as usual is a matter of foresight on the part of our board of directors."

Keeneland is a non-profit organization that has contributed tens of millions of dollars to local charities. The July sale, once known as the premier sale in the world, was canceled for 2003 because of the mare reproductive loss syndrome that clobbered the Thoroughbred breeding business two years ago. The July sales are expected to resume in 2004.

Lanerie on Lady Tak in Ashland

Although several jockey assignments were still unconfirmed as of Wednesday, the field for the $500,000 Ashland Stakes on Saturday appears to have held firm at seven.

Lady Tak, the unbeaten filly trained by Steve Asmussen, is the probable favorite for the Grade 1 Ashland. Corey Lanerie will ride Lady Tak in place of Donnie Meche, who is serving the last few days of a 30-day substance-abuse suspension.

The other 3-year-old fillies expected for the 1 1/16-mile Ashland are Ivanavinalot, Yell, Elloluv, Holiday Lady, Allspice, and Unbridled Femme.

Blue Grass field of six shaping up

A field of six to eight is what Keeneland stakes coordinator Dan Bork is expecting for the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes April 12. Peace Rules and Badge of Silver are the likely favorites in a field also expected to include Brancusi, Offlee Wild, Crowned Dancer, Lots of Sizzle, and possibly Region of Merit and Lion Tamer.

Badge of Silver had his final Blue Grass tuneup Wednesday, working a mile in a swift 1:38 at Churchill. Regular rider Robby Albarado was aboard for trainer Ronny Werner.

Shippers need health certificates

Because of the recent outbreak and subsequent quarantine of some horses with equine herpesvirus type 1 (EHV-1) at Turfway, all shippers into Keeneland must be accompanied by a health certificate that has been written within 72 hours of arrival.

"Hopefully the thing has run its course at Turfway, but obviously it only makes sense that we maintain our vigilance," said Beasley.

Three Turfway horses were diagnosed with EHV-1 on March 17. No further cases have been reported. Approximately 70 horses quarantined because of the outbreak are tentatively scheduled for release Sunday.

Wildcat defeat is Keeneland victory

There is no way to gauge the numbers, but Keeneland officials believe the upset loss for the Kentucky Wildcats last weekend in the NCAA basketball tournament might significantly enhance ontrack attendance this weekend. Kentucky, the tournament favorite, lost to Marquette in the Midwest Regional final.

"It pretty much has to help us," said Beasley. "You had thousands of sports fans going down to the New Orleans for the Final Four, but now they're staying in town. You probably also would have had a lot of people partying and waiting by their TVs for the games and not bothering to come out at all. I think more than a few of those folks might come out here now."