Keeneland hoping to buck dipping handle trend

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It might be fairly said that the racing business has been a microcosm of the American economy this year. Substantial declines in handle at Churchill Downs, Saratoga, Del Mar, and Arlington Park were followed by similarly disappointing numbers at the Keeneland September yearling sales.

Clearly, there are no simple solutions to these disturbing trends, but Keeneland Race Course will do its best to curtail the tailspin when it rolls out its proverbial red carpet for another boutique meet. Nine stakes races, eight of them graded, will be run on the opening three-day weekend of the Keeneland fall meet, which begins Friday at 1:10 p.m. Eastern.

Not only will FallStars Weekend, as Keeneland calls it, provide major implications for the Breeders' Cup, but a per-day purse average of some $650,000 will give horseplayers every opportunity to help turn this thing around.

"There's a whole lot of excitement about this meet, so hopefully that will translate into some badly needed momentum for the game," said Keeneland's president, Nick Nicholson.

The 10-race Friday opener will be anchored by the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades Stakes, the first of six Win and You're In races this weekend at Keeneland in the Breeders' Cup Challenge. Mani Bhavan, unbeaten and virtually untested in winning three dirt sprints, the last two at Saratoga, will be favored when she stretches out to 1 1/16 miles and switches to the Keeneland Polytrack in the $500,000 Alcibiades.

"She's been able to relax in her sprint races," said Steve Klesaris, trainer of Mani Bhavan. "I like this kind of race better than a one-turn mile - she's got two bends to look at. Obviously we've got two questions to answer: distance and synthetic. We intend to get our answers Friday."

Mani Bhavan will start from post 5 in a field of seven 2-year-old fillies entered in the 57th Alcibiades, which will go as the ninth race (post time, 5:10). One of her main rivals, Devotee, is a Darley homebred, meaning the possibility exists for one of those rare situations in which the race sponsor presents itself the trophy afterward. Devotee comes off an impressive maiden victory in her career debut at the end of the Saratoga meet.

In fact, all but one of the Alcibiades starters last raced at Saratoga, with the lone exception being Bon Jovi Girl, a two-time winner at Delaware Park for trainer Tim Ritchey of Afleet Alex fame.

Alan Garcia, arguably the hottest rider in America in the last few months, will be in from New York to ride Mani Bhavan. Garcia, like quite a few other top jockeys, will not ride at Keeneland on a regular basis during the 17-day meet that runs through Oct. 25 but will be in for selected key stakes. Otherwise, the jockeys' race figures to boil down to Kent Desormeaux, who won his first Keeneland title in the spring, versus Robby Albarado, Julien Leparoux, Jamie Theriot, Calvin Borel, and maybe a few others.

By necessity, the fall meet at Keeneland is front-loaded with its biggest stakes, lest those races be rendered irrelevant toward the all-important Breeders' Cup. The timing of three weeks before the BC Championships, which are set for Oct. 24-25 at Santa Anita, means Keeneland will have exhausted nearly half of its 19-race stakes schedule when FallStars Weekend is over. Of the 10 remaining stakes, the most noteworthy are the Grade 1, $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup on Oct. 11, and the Grade 2, $300,000 Raven Run on Oct. 18.

The big money, by the way, isn't available only to horsemen: Late pick fours with a guaranteed pool of $200,000 will be offered every Friday, starting with opening day, and the first Saturday card of the meet will include a $150,000-guaranteed pool in the pick six. Minimum wagers on various bets include 50 cents on pick fours and trifectas; 10 cents on superfectas; $1 on the last-race Super High Five, which has a carryover provision; and $2 on the pick six.

TVG will be prominent throughout the meet, while ESPN will show two of the Saturday stakes, the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile and Grade 1 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity, in a two-hour Saturday broadcast.

The weather forecast for opening day calls for sunny skies and a high of 72.