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In Kentucky Oaks, winner's a Keeper

Only a stumbling start stands between blinker-wearing Keeper Hill and three straight Grade I victories.

Hall of Fame trainer Robert Frankel took over Keeper Hill this year, and after she won a maiden race he added blinkers to keep her attention. She won the Las Virgenes, then stumbled at the start of the Santa Anita Oaks and was beaten a length.

Friday, Keeper Hill scooted through an opening on the turn to get a shot at the leader, then wore down Banshee Breeze in the final yards to capture the $605,500 Kentucky Oaks.

David Flores whacked Keeper Hill more than 20 times left-handed during the stretch run. Owned by John A. Chandler, Keeper Hill returned $8.60, $4.80 and $4 as the lukewarm favorite among the 13 3-year-old fillies.

Keeper Hill finished 1[ miles in 1:52 before a record Oaks crowd of 94,415. Frankel said Keeper Hill would probably go to the Triple Tiara, New York's Triple Crown for fillies.

In other stakes, Indian Rocket overcame a horrendous start to win the $122,500 Churchill Downs Turf Sprint by a nose over long-shot GH's Pleasure. It was another neck back to Claire's Honor.

Heavily favored Escena galloped past the leaders turning into the stretch and was not threatened while scoring a 4-length victory over One Rich Lady in the $287,750 Louisville Breeders' Cup. Ridden by Jerry Bailey, Escena returned $3.40.

Favored Dernier Croise closed fast to beat Tenbyssimo and Silver Lord in the $126,000 American Turf. Ridden by Gary Stevens, Dernier Croise returned $6.80.

NO SPONGING: The 15 horses in today's Kentucky Derby get the same inspection that any entry in a cheap claiming race gets these days.

Officials will place a long, snakelike apparatus into the nostrils of each horse to determine if there is anything obstructing the airways.

It's to detect "sponging," a sinister and potentially deadly practice that turned up at Churchill Downs in 1996, when someone placed sponges into the nostrils of horses, restricting their breathing and hindering their performance.

Federal authorities investigated the race-fixing scheme, and a grand jury in Louisville is expected to take up the matter Monday and indictments reportedly are likely.

MISUNDERSTANDING: Nationalore, winless in 15 career starts, was unable to work on the Churchill Downs track because of a misunderstanding. Unaware that the track closed early, at 8 a.m, because post time was 11:30 a.m., Nationalore's connections had to settle for walking their horse under the shed row.

MCCARRON CHECKS IN: Chris McCarron, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, visited Artax, his Derby mount, and said, "I'm anticipating he's going to run a big race."

He might be due. He was third in the Santa Anita Derby, beaten by 9\ lengths by Indian Charlie, after winning his previous races, the San Felipe and Santa Catalina.

"His lackluster race in the Santa Anita Derby didn't happen because he wouldn't rate," said McCarron, who won the Derby aboard Go for Gin in 1994 and Alysheba in '87. "He came out of the race dehydrated. Because he ran a disappointing race that doesn't mean he won't cooperate in the Derby and come from behind and run his best race."

IN THE SUITE, BO AND BO: Trainer D. Wayne Lukas entertained a couple of Bo's at Barn 44 at Churchill Downs. He was visited by actor Bo Derek and former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler.

"He also called his friend, Bob Knight, to come down," said Gil Brandt, another Lukas pal better known for his expertise as an NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive. "And when Wayne calls all those folks here, he's confident."