07/30/2010 1:54PM

Next 98 days of racing season will provide answers

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – August already? It doesn’t feel like we’ve had seven months of racing in 2010, and what we’ve had hasn’t settled much or offered a lot of drama. That’s all about to change quickly: The 98 days of racing from Sunday’s Haskell through the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 will see 57 of the year’s 113 Grade 1 races decided.

The 31 days of August will provide a strong start, with every one of the game’s biggest names scheduled to race. On Sunday, the four different colts who ran 1-2 in the Derby and Preakness square off in the Haskell, which along with the Travers on Aug. 28 may finally point us in the direction of a 3-year-old champion – or leave us with 10 different winners of the year’s 10 Grade 1 main-track route races for 3-year-old males. So far it’s been Ice Box (Florida Derby), Eskendereya (Wood), Sidney’s Candy (Santa Anita Derby), Line of David (Arkansas Derby), Stately Victor (Blue Grass), Super Saver (Derby), Lookin At Lucky (Preakness), and Drosselmeyer (Belmont).

Quality Road, the nation’s top older male, goes in the Whitney on Aug. 7 against Blame and Mine That Bird, the same day that Zenyatta likely tries to make it 18 for 18 with a third victory in Del Mar’s Clement Hirsch. Blind Luck and Devil May Care, the runaway leaders of the 3-year-old filly division, may square off in the Alabama on Aug. 21. A week later, it’s the Travers, and the day after that, the reigning Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, will actually run in a Grade 1 race for the first time this year when they lead her over from her August quarters at Saratoga for the Personal Ensign.

It’s quite a lineup and that doesn’t even get us to Labor Day. It also doesn’t get us the race that everyone has been clamoring for, the ever-elusive showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

Sunday’s Ruffian Handicap at Saratoga might have gotten one or both, but the Zenyatta camp decided to stay home for the Hirsch and Rachel instead ran last weekend in the ungraded Lady’s Secret at Monmouth, once track officials there raised the purse and moved the date to fit her schedule. She won at odds of 1-10, giving her a record this year of 2 wins and 2 seconds, having contested two ungraded stakes and two Grade 2 stakes.

It has been precisely the opposite of how she was campaigned last year. After Jess Jackson bought her, she ran in nothing but Grade 1’s, including three daring and historic triumphs against males in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward. This year, she has accomplished virtually nothing of consequence, and the only history she is making is for the longest streak of avoiding Grade 1 races by a reigning Horse of the Year.

Zenyatta is not exactly being aggressively campaigned, but at least she’s complying with the letter, if not the spirit, of things by running exclusively in Grade 1 races, winning the Santa Margarita, the Apple Blossom, and the Vanity – all races she’d won before but not second-tier or obscure events.

The only remaining Grade 1 routes for older fillies on the dirt before the Breeders’ Cup are the Personal Ensign on Aug. 29 and the Beldame, which Belmont officials finally announced last week will be run Oct. 2. The Zenyatta camp hasn’t ruled out the first, but it’s only 22 days after the Hirsch, which would be the quickest turnaround of her career. (She had 23 days between her first two career starts nearly three years ago.)

So maybe the Beldame, or maybe nothing until the Breeders’ Cup – if they even both really make it that far, and to the same race.

Zenyatta clearly has the upper hand this year, for running in Grade 1 events and for being sent to Oaklawn for an Apple Blossom showdown with Rachel Alexandra that the latter’s handlers declined. Both of their campaigns have, perhaps inevitably, been a letdown though, because in addition to not facing each other, neither has done what made them so special last year – daring to take on males in the sport’s biggest races. That would all be forgiven, if they’d do the one thing everyone wants them to – race against each other. The Personal Ensign and the Beldame await them.