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Submitted by John Conte on Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM

Keeneland: Best three weeks of spring kicks in

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Not too long ago, winter acted as if it was here to stay, and the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team was losing game after game. Horse racing? Barely on the radar.

Well, fast forward a few weeks, and the hardy folks of the Bluegrass State suddenly find themselves in sports heaven. Their resurgent Wildcats have made it to the Final Four at a time when the weather is finally getting nicer, and, most importantly for racing fans, Keeneland is opening for three glorious weeks of live action.

Along with the major announcement Wednesday that Keeneland is switching back to a dirt surface after eight years of Polytrack, this bucolic track was already buzzing as preparations were being made in midweek. By Friday, it will be full throttle when the 15-day spring meet starts with a 10-race card that includes the Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes, the first of 16 stakes to be run during what promises to be another highly eventful meet.

“I think everybody’s ready to get going after the tough winter we had,” said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman. “We’re all looking forward to hosting exciting top-class racing.”

Wise Dan, the reigning two-time Horse of the Year, is among those expected to make an appearance here, with the $300,000 Maker’s 46 Mile on April 11 marking his 7-year-old debut. The Maker’s 46, which Wise Dan won last year as a 2-5 favorite, is one of five Grade 1 races to be run during the first seven days of action.

As for the human participants, the question is not “Who’s here,” but “Who’s not?” John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Joel Rosario, Rosie Napravnik, and many more top jockeys will be in competition on a regular basis. Same goes for many of the top trainers on the continent.

The spring signature race, the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, is shaping up with a 14-horse maximum and figures to produce a starter or two for the May 3 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. The Blue Grass will anchor a sensational April 12 program that also will include the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley, Grade 1 Madison, Grade 3 Commonwealth, and Grade 3 Shakertown.

The first Grade 1 of the meet comes Saturday with the $500,000 Ashland, a race that could yield a filly or two for the May 2 Kentucky Oaks – provided the likely favorite, Testa Rossi, does not win. Trainer Chad Brown said he almost surely will bypass the Oaks with Testa Rossi, who has been a genuine standout so far on grass.

“I’m just not getting that feeling from her, that she’d be as good on dirt as she’s been on the turf,” said Brown.

Main events during the latter portion of the stand include the Grade 3 Lexington, a last-gasp Derby prep that will highlight a three-stakes card April 19, and meet-ending turf marathons, the Grade 3 Bewitch on April 24 and the Grade 2 Elkhorn on closing day, April 25.

Even on days without stakes – and there will be six of those – there still will be plenty of classy racing. Counting bonuses from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, Huffman estimated per-day purses at $627,000, once again among the highest in North America.

There will only be two Sunday cards (April 6 and 13) during the meet, owing to April 20 being dark because of the Easter holiday. The April 13 program not only will include the Grade 2 Beaumont Stakes but also a “Ladies of the Turf” theme, with many of the great female participants in racing history signed on to attend.

Friday is the biannual College Scholarship Day, with 10 scholarships worth $1,000 each being raffled off throughout the day. For Saturday, Keeneland is encouraging fans to wear blue to support Kentucky in its NCAA push.

Post time every day is 1:05 p.m. Eastern, except Blue Grass Day, when a 12-race card will start at 12:35. TVG will have an on-site presence throughout the meet.

One slight down note: The weather for opening day might not match the fans’ giddy mood, as strong thunderstorms being predicted for Thursday night could carry into Friday, with high temperatures reaching the mid-60s.

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