For all its historic implications and tradition, Keeneland's fall meet annually has the challenging task of trying to lure top contenders in the wake of the Super Saturday lineups at Belmont and Santa Anita Park one week earlier.
With 112 main-body entries for Friday's opening-day card and two probable Breeders' Cup favorites among this weekend's graded stakes entrants, the questions of quantity and quality for the boutique meet this year yielded the answers that Keeneland officials were hoping for.
Given the competition it faces, Keeneland couldn't have asked for a much better response to the nine graded stakes, including five Grade I contests, taking place during the opening weekend of its 17-day fall meet, which begins Friday.
Welcoming patrons on its opening day will be an edition of the Grade I, $400,000 Darley Alcibiades for juvenile fillies that attracted an overflow field of 16, including unbeaten graded stakes winner Gold Edge. The outlook only gets better from there as nine Grade I winners are scheduled to race over the following two days, headed by Wise Dan — the No. 2-ranked horse in the latest NTRA poll — the 4-5 morning-line pick for Saturday's Grade I, $750,000 Shadwell Turf Mile.
"It is a challenge (to draw horses) but I think one of the things we've been blessed with is owners really like coming here," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's vice president of racing. "And our racing office is second to none.
"We're very noted for our (condition) book going. If someone wants to bring in a horse for non-winners of three, he doesn't want to ship all the way from New York and find out the race doesn't go. That's expensive. So we make every effort to make sure that race is going to go, even if it's 5-6 horses."
With the Breeders' Cup now regularly being held over dirt tracks — including this year and next year at Santa Anita — there has been some debate as to the impact those horses who prep over Keene-land's main Polytrack surface will have in the World Championships.
However, Keeneland's opening Fall Stars weekend has produced at least one Breeders' Cup winner in each of the last three years with Saturday's Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes specifically yielding the past three victors of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (Informed Decision, Dubai Majesty and Musical Romance).
That trend could march on as multiple Grade I winner Groupie Doll, widely regarded as the leader of the female sprint division, is the overwhelming 4-5 morning-line favorite for this year's 6-furlong Thoroughbred Club of America.
Friday's 11⁄16-mile Alcibiades also has strong recent history with last year's heroine Stephanie's Kitten going on to triumph in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Gold Edge, trained by Lon Wiggins, could follow a similar path this season as the daughter of Eddington is unbeaten in three starts over both dirt and synthetic tracks and is coming into the Alcibiades off a neck victory in the Grade III, 1-mile Arlington-Lassie Stakes.
"She's always shown us a lot, she's always worked real good in the mornings and she's such a hard trier," said Wiggins, who conditions Gold Edge for owner Dolphus Morrison. "She'll fight to the finish and she hates to lose, that's the best thing about her."
Like the Alcibiades, Saturday's Grade I Dixiana Breeders' Futurity had an overflow field of 16 juveniles enter with no clear-cut favorite in the precocious bunch.
Trainer Dale Romans and owners Donegal Racing pulled off the stunner last year when a then-unknown Dullahan won at odds of 17-1.
The same connections are back in this year's Breeders' Futurity with maiden winner Craving Carats, eighth last time out in the Grade II With Anticipation Stakes on the Saratoga turf.
"You know, he has a similar form as Dullahan and I am anxious to run him," Romans said. "If anybody saw the With Anticipation, he never got a chance to run in the entire race. We hope he bounces back in this race and earns himself a spot in California."
Both Saturday's Grade I First Lady on the turf and Sunday's Grade I Juddmonte Spinster have a host of talented distaffers in their ranks.
Daisy Devine will attempt to join Intercontinental (2005) and Never Retreat (2011) as the only horses to win the Jenny Wiley and First Lady in the same year while Team Valor's Grade I winner Summer Soiree is cross-entered in both contests.
"It's a real toss-up with her because she's run really well on synthetics and she didn't run very well on the grass," said trainer Graham Motion, who conditions Summer Soiree along with Aruna, who will attempt to defend her title in the Spinster. "The grass is the logical spot, but her only disappointing race was on the grass at Keene-land last year (fifth in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup) and her synthetic races were very good. (Where she runs) may be dictated by post position and speed because clearly she is a one-dimensional filly."
Fellow Spinster entrant In Lingerie, never off the board in six career starts, is unbeaten in two starts over synthetic tracks including the Grade III Bourbonette at Turfway.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.