Saturday, April 24, 2004

Keeneland sets attendance record



By Murray Evans
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - Not even a week of rainy weather dampened Keeneland President Nick Nicholson's mood Friday.

Three straight days of the wet stuff didn't keep Keeneland from setting an overall track attendance record during its spring horse racing meeting, which ended Friday.

Keeneland drew 14,871 fans Friday, raising the total for its 15-day meeting to 232,826. That's 327 more than the previous record of 232,499, set during last fall's 17-day meeting.

The previous spring record had been 232,339, set during a 16-day meeting in 1988.

"It's a true combination of things, of promotions that work, corporate sponsors that bring a lot of people and excitement, of all the people here who are like lots of slices of a pie," Nicholson said. "It's everybody doing their job.

"I don't believe racing is declining. I believe it's an extremely exciting sport and it has a lot of appeal to modern, smart people."

The overall record capped a meeting in which Keeneland set three other attendance records, including its overall single-day mark.

Keeneland, which has been open since October 1936, had never broken the 30,000 mark in single-day attendance until last Saturday, when 31,028 fans showed up on a sunny, warm day to watch the Grade II Lexington Stakes, a Kentucky Derby prep race won by Quintons Gold Rush.

The following day, Keeneland set a Sunday attendance record with 21,766 fans. On April 9, the track set a Friday attendance record with 21,737 fans.

"The whole package was here last Saturday," Nicholson said. "All the pieces have to fall into place, and that's what does it. It was a very memorable day."

The track exceeded the 20,000 mark on two other days - April 3, when Madcap Escapade won the Grade I Ashland Stakes for fillies, and April 10, when The Cliff's Edge won the track's premiere race, the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes.

The overall attendance record fell despite rainy weather during the final three days of the meeting.

"The fact that the record fell, even after the last three days, is a tribute to our fans," Nicholson said. "Our fans appreciate good racing. It's just wonderful, given the kind of weather that we've had the last three days."

In Friday's feature race, the Grade III Elkhorn Stakes, Bobby Frankel-trained Epicentre took the lead at the eighth pole and beat 15-1 longshot Rochester by 43/4 lengths.

Epicentre, the 6-5 favorite under jockey Jerry Bailey, covered the 11/2 miles on soft turf in 2:31.96. Art Variety was third, followed by Kim Loves Bucky, the winner of the race the past two years.

Epicentre, the 5-year-old son of Kris S., has five career wins, three in his last four races. He paid $4.40, $3.40 and $2.60. Rochester paid $11.20 and $6.60, while Art Variety paid $3.80.

Pat Day won 21 races during the meeting, tops among jockeys, and raised his career Keeneland wins total to 898, a track record by more than 180 wins. Shane Sellers was second with 15 wins during the meeting, including the Blue Grass Stakes, and has 398 career wins at Keeneland.

Steven Asmussen led the trainer standings with nine wins, including the Lexington Stakes. Two trainers had seven wins - Kenny McPeek and Todd Pletcher. No other trainer won more than four races.

L. William Heiligbrodt and Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey led the owners standings with five wins each. G. Watts Humphrey Jr. won four races.

Keeneland also set a track record for on-site mutuel handle, the money wagered at Keeneland on both Keeneland races and imported simulcasts. Keeneland bettors wagered $28,010,988, a 13.1 percent increase over last year's spring meeting.

The previous record for on-site mutuel handle was $24,758,713, set during last fall's meeting, which was two days longer than the current meeting.




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