08/16/2007 12:00AM

Some midweek blues at the Spa

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - There isn't exactly trouble in paradise yet, but the golden glow surrounding the opening week of Saratoga had begun to fade by the time the meet reached its halfway point this week.

It's still the best racing out there, and there's plenty to keep the regulars in the stands here and at simulcast carrels across the country engaged and entertained every day. At the same time, there are disquieting developments at both the top and bottom of the game here: The meeting's two marquee events are disappointingly short on stars and meaningful showdowns, while the daily racing is sometimes starting to look like the mishmash of low-level fare more prevalent at Aqueduct and on slow days at Belmont.

Fans who had hoped to see Rags to Riches or any sort of Triple Crown rematches the next two Saturdays are instead left to decide which of Todd Pletcher's other fillies to back in the Alabama, and whether Street Sense is worth 3-5 in the Travers. You can't get mad at Rags to Riches for missing some training time and skipping Saratoga to await the Sept. 8 Gazelle, but this was a year when the Travers really could have been a midsummer classic and a Triple Crown rubber match with a dream field of Street Sense, Curlin, Any Given Saturday, and Hard Spun.

Instead, everyone's ducking it like it's a dental appointment. Since three weeks between the Haskell and Travers is now apparently an inhumanely brief interval, Any Given Saturday is instead pointing for the Brooklyn Handicap while Curlin will await the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Hard Spun will brave the three weeks but probably by turning back to seven furlongs and running in the King's Bishop on the Travers undercard.

It doesn't help that Darley Stud has decided that this year's 3-year-old crop is so special that it must buy every one of its available leaders. The shopping spree to date includes Street Sense, Hard Spun, Epsom Derby winner Authorized, and, earlier this week, Any Given Saturday. None of them officially becomes Darley's property until the end of the racing season, when most or all are likely to be retired, but it's a safe bet that none of them will be facing any of his fellow future stallion-barn companions until the Breeders' Cup Classic.

After a banquet of an opening week, the daily Saratoga cards have become like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: You never know quite what you're going to get. This past week, usually-slow Wednesday had three excellent allowance races (swept by Godolphin) and the Adirondack Stakes, but Thursday was a horror show of appetizers for the Saratoga Special: maiden claimers in the second; a field of 11 statebred maiden claimers in the third that scratched down to six in perfect weather; then more statebred turf sprinters, statebred filly routers, and conditioned claimers.

People who make a trip to Saratoga their one racetrack outing of the year have never seen Saratoga cards that look like this, but it's a sign of the times in New York. There is no faulting racing secretary P.J. Campo here: He's being creative and putting together the fullest fields he can, given the glut of statebreds and 1-for-lifers on the grounds. It's just discouraging to see so many of exactly the same faces and races here that we were watching a month ago in the waning days of Belmont.

An even bigger source of discomfort for players has been the persistence of starting-gate incidents at the meeting. The New York Racing Association has acknowledged and tried to address the problem, and the stewards are to be commended for erring on the side of forgiveness by declaring as many refunds as they have after questionable starts. In Thursday's Adirondack Stakes, more than $500,000 was refunded when second choice Phantom Income reared at the start. Normally, this would just be a case of tough luck, but even the stewards are so spooked by the number of gate mishaps that in this case they ordered a refund that may not have been strictly warranted. There's no question that Phantom Income reared and got off poorly, but whether this was a case of an unlucky start or gate-crew malfeasance can't be answered definitively.

No one's happy when a refund is ordered: Those who handle or bet on Phantom Income still feel they got robbed out of a run for their money, and those who saw their payoff on victorious More Happy drop from $6 to $5 because of the decision think they deserved more. Whether or not the Phantom Income refund was a bit of a phantom, at least it's better than having a more craven and profit-driven track ownership that might be leaning on officials not to be quite so generous.