SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, September, 1, 2011--I expect to get an argument on this, but not if one considers the new normal: On balance, the racing has been first rate all meeting long.

With the exception of early domination by Team Todd, equipped with his gang of two-year-olds and Mike Repole leading-owner dropdowns, early results were a bit monotonous. Then the wealth began to be distributed a little more evenly.

Chad Brown emerged as a force, and there were a number of other live outfits--the second-start-at-meet Asmussen runners, anything saddled by Mike Hushion, just to name two--livened up the parimutuel action considerably.

With the exception of a handful of days, the weatherman helped keep most turf races right where the belonged. But let’s be fair and give P. J. Campo a little credit here, too.

It’s become more than fashionable to knock NYRA‘s Vice-President of Racing, making him the poster child for the decline of quality racing in New York. If you want to believe that’s the case, know that he had plenty of help.

In the main, fans would rather bet on larger fields of less than stellar horses than smaller fields full of quality, graded stakes notwithstanding, of course.

Campo has filled these cards admirably considering what he has to work with. And didn’t it seem for a while that every other race ended in a blanket finish?

There's more to good racing than top horses; the races themselves need to be as competitive as possible. A creatively written condition book helps achieve that goal.

Fans approved by voting with their dollars. On-track betting handle has been up marginally virtually every week, bucking long-standing national trends. Somebody likes the product.

Something else, too. All-sources handle has remained flat, fairly amazing once you consider that the $44 million kicked in by New York City-OTB each of the last two years is but a distant memory. This gives flat a good name.

Proof positive that the racing has been good and exciting is the fact this ballgame is almost over. Just like that: It’s as if 40 days were compressed into the old 24-day schedule. Whoosh, and it’s gone.

Having said this, I’m a little disappointed with how the final Saturday stakes events have shaken out.

I’m going to get to see Harve De Grace all right, but even though she’s taking on males on the Woodward, it wasn’t the matchup I was hoping for.

I wanted Harve De Grace vs. Blind Luck in the Personal Ensign, But Harve De Grace’s connections weren’t all that anxious to meet Blind Luck at 10 furlongs, or even any other filly in the Personal Ensign for that matter.

With the Ladies Classic at nine furlongs, and with a hoped for victory in the Woodward, Harve De Grace would be legitimate Horse of the Year material if she won those two events, beating her rival in the process.

The Woodward was good enough for Rachel Alexandra, after all, it would be good enough for Harve De Grace, right?

Not necessarily. Rachel was a three-year-old when she won the Woodward, and had a race called the Preakness tucked away in the pocket of her hindquarters.

Similarly, however, Harve De Grace has her Blind Luck, the way Rachel had her Zenyatta. That was a close and highly contentious battle, just like this one figures to be.

Meanwhile, we won’t lay the entire burden in the lap of Rick Porter, owner of Harve De Grace. After all, Jerry Hollendorfer made overtures about running in the Pacific Classic, then very quietly went in another direction.

I was looking forward to seeing Sidney’s Candy in the Woodward, and why not? He’s won graded stakes going long on three surfaces; dirt, turf and synthetic.

He made his first start since the WinStar purchase winning the grassy G2 Fourstardave. But when no one challenged the speedster early in that race, in the end it had all the drama of a public workout for pay.


The Woodward I thought would provide a gauge on the older horse division which, a couple of exceptional moments aside, has lacked definition. Also, it might have provided a clue as to whether 10 furlongs was within his scope in the manner he handled nine.

It turns out that his trainer is not all that anxious to answer the question at this moment either, unless he figures he can win the Grade with his deep bench.

“The Woodward and the Forego are very attractive races and Sidney’s Candy is a horse who is so good at all these things,” said Todd Pletcher. “But we felt the seven-eighths [of the Forego] was a little more comfortable distance...”

Never want to get uncomfortable if you can help it, but maybe it’s a learning process for the man who only has raced this star pupil once. If distance is the question, then the G1 Cigar Mile or Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile would fit more snugly than the Classic would.

So it turns out that without either one of the divisional stars, the Personal Ensign is a relatively easy way for any member of the field to add a Grade 1 to her resume; win, place or show.

Harve De Grace, meanwhile, will supply the drama in the Woodward. That makes the Forego the most dramatic race of the day, featuring a meeting between the aforementioned Sidney’s Candy and Jackson Bend, winner of the extremely deep James Marvin.

Jackson Bend has trained like a wild horse for Nick Zito since that tough seven furlongs.

So, I guess I’ll just have to settle for three straight Grade 1s on a Saturday afternoon in Saratoga. Someone has to.