The opening cards are stocked with full fields, and a stroll through the Keeneland backstretch reveals a parade of horse flesh that rivals rush-hour congestion.
The reality facing the Kentucky racing circuit is as stark as ever. But for 15 days at the Bluegrass's most picturesque track, there stands to at least be a temporary reprieve from the hardships beating down the state's signature industry.
Despite increased competition from jurisdictions fueled by slots-infused purses, Keeneland has managed to stay the course and lure horsemen to its famed meets with competitive offerings of its own and a staunch lineup of stakes races.
The 2012 Spring Meet which kicks off Friday figures to be another beacon amidst troubled waters by offering average daily purses of $604,933 and a total of 16 stakes worth $3.635 million to be run during the season, which concludes April 27.
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Though lucrative purses in New York have impacted the number of horses some outfits have shipped to Keeneland, Big Apple stalwarts like Chad Brown, Christophe Clement and Shug McGaughey are among those with strings at the Lexington track.
"Certainly some of the guys at Gulfstream and Fair Grounds were making some sounds about sending more horses to New York because of the money, but we've been very fortunate," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's director of racing. "While some of the New Yorkers have not sent as many horses as they have in the past, they have still sent us some horses and some nice horses and so we've been very pleased with that support."
"Keeneland has been a very special place for horsemen for a number of years and I think they remember that."
In the current climate, owners and trainers have to go where the money is. But in addititon to maintaining its purses — which are aided in part by revenue generated by its Thoroughbred auctions — officials with Keeneland say horsemen especially appreciate the track's efforts to make sure each race in the condition book goes off even if it doesn't boast numbers that will flatter its average field size.
"One of the things we do here so well is when the condition book comes out and you have those allowance races in the book, the horsemen know we are going to make them go," Beasley said. "We're not a racetrack that is driven by field sizes. Yes, we love full fields but if it's a good allowance race with six horses, we're going to let it go versus others that might not."
Saturday's $500,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes will be the first of five Grade I races held during the Keeneland meet with the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 14 as the program's highlight event.
This year's Blue Grass is slated to feature one of its strongest lineups in years with juvenile champion Hansen, Grade I winner Dullahan, and graded stakes winners Howe Great and Prospective all slated to contest the 11⁄8-mile Kentucky Derby prep.
As much as Keeneland is banking on its reputation and diligence to produce another round of strong handle and attendance figures, however, it cautions against using its boutique numbers as a barometer of the industry's health.
Despite a vibrant turnout for its Grade III Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes, Turfway Park recently closed its 2012 winter/spring meet with declines in both on-track and all-sources handle.
Once the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks are over and Churchill Downs has to go head-to-head with Belmont Park and its average daily purses of $620,000, Beasley feels it will become all too apparent how dire the situation has become for the state's racing circuit.
"I think there is tremendous concern. I think after Derby week, you're going to see potentially a serious drop-off in quality horses here in Kentucky," Beasley said. "People are sometimes misled because Keeneland is a boutique meet and they correlate that to the whole 12 months. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"They think everything is fine. But I think people who are really interested in our industry should watch our meet, the first week of the Derby, look at the field size and quality and then look at the rest of the next two or three months and see how it falls. I hope I'm wrong. But that's the legit concern."