Commentary

Rachel in 2010

Updated: September 9, 2009, 6:07 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Rachel Alexandra (left) wins the Woodward at Saratoga.
AP PhotoRachel Alexandra (left) became the first filly to win the Woodward at Saratoga.
It already sounds like a political campaign, doesn't it? "Rachel in 2010" is a sure-fire winner. Whether it's Chris Matthews firing a Hardball, or Sean Hannity welling up with patriotic pride, few could argue that a racing campaign in 2010 for superstar filly Rachel Alexandra is a wonderful thing.

If it ever happens.

On the same day that Rachel Alexandra wowed us all in the Woodward -- and, folks, that's about as wowed from a single horserace as I've been -- the sporting world delivered a stark reminder about thinking too far ahead, while also dominating the headlines over the star filly's performance.

When Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford laid writhing on the turf in serious pain during No. 3-ranked Oklahoma's season-opening loss to Brigham Young, the instant reaction from the masses was the same: "Oh, my, he would have been the No. 1 pick in last year's NFL draft had he left school, and now look at him. Is his football future in jeopardy?"

Talents the level of Rachel Alexandra and Bradford are precious. Few can do what they do as elite athletes. And opportunity should be embraced with even more precious urgency. It's an incredible position to be in, rising to the top of any competitive venture. How many can make the most of the chance more than once? The window of greatness can close all too quickly.

The connections of Rachel Alexandra have been ambitious with her since purchasing the 3-year-old just days after her scintillating win in May's Kentucky Oaks. For that, they deserve mounds of praise and appreciation. But to already begin outlining a plan for a race to be held Nov. 5, 2010 appears to be fool's gold to those of us who follow horse racing. For those counting, that's a 426-day plan between her stirring Woodward win and the opening of the two-day Breeders' Cup World Championships next fall at Churchill Downs.

The Breeders' Cup must sit atop the totem pole for Rachel Alexandra's 2010 campaign if she's to continue making historic waves, and luring crowds. Her owners certainly don't appear in it for mere exhibitions, so one would have to think the 2010 schedule would be loaded with more ambitious spots: Maybe a few races against the gals, and a few against the boys. But which races out there would really do anything to increase her legacy and bolster her popularity, which most agree peaks at age 3 in the public eye?

Given the clear-cut declaration that Rachel Alexandra will not run over an all-weather track again (she won over Keeneland's Polytrack for her previous owners), it's very interesting when you try to map out what her 2010 schedule might include.

Rachel Alexandra beat all 3-year-old challengers in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
AP PhotoRachel Alexandra beat all 3-year-old challengers in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
Legacy-boosting Grade 1 races on the west coast like the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic would be ruled out because of the all-weather surface issue. So, too, would the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horserace now to be run on the Tapeta surface. Also strike out the preeminent filly and mare race in the country not named the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic, Keeneland's Grade 1 Spinster, because of surface.

If given four or five months away from racing, as has been publicly noted in recent days, that means Rachel Alexandra would begin serious training around February, and perhaps be race-ready in late March or early April. That could mean something like the Grade 2 Rampart at Gulfstream in late March, or more likely Oaklawn's Grade 1 Apple Blossom in early April as a season kick-off. Oaklawn still packs the fans in droves, which certainly has appeal to the building of Rachel's legacy. You could also see her pointed to the Grade 2 Louisville Distaff at Churchill Downs, which anchors the Kentucky Oaks undercard and would guarantee the most eyeballs in attendance, perhaps as many as 125,000.

But there are few other hurdles of intrigue on the calendar for Rachel. Perhaps a July date in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap would be in the works, a race worth $1 million and at 1-1/4 miles, which could answer that "classic distance" question. But a return to Saratoga or Belmont would offer no real extra sauce. She's already won the Woodward against the boys in New York. Anything else would be anticlimactic after what we saw last week. The only summer date against the gals that could get fans' blood really pumping would be a turf attempt in the Grade 1 Beverly D at Arlington in August, or even a run at the same-day Arlington Million against the boys.

And speaking of the boys, if Rachel were to run against them in 2010, what spots might make the most sense and have the biggest historical impact? The Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap seems a potential starting-off point in March since we know she loves the Fair Grounds main track. But the track rarely lures more than 10,000 and can't hold many more no matter who's racing, so the idea of bringing her to the masses would not jive. April's Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap makes no sense given the Apple Blossom's similar date and higher Grade 1 status.

Unless the Pimlico Special is reinstated for 2010, it's hard to envision any date with the boys before June 2010. Churchill Downs' Stephen Foster, a race won by her predecessor Curlin, certainly would make the most sense as her first seasonal date with the guys. Other than that, there's really only another Woodward date at Saratoga and an October renewal of the Jockey Club Gold Cup that remains in play before the 2010 Breeders' Cup.

Looking at the calendar and surface issues, the absolute best the 2010 campaign could look would be: April's Apple Blossom, June's Stephen Foster, August's Beverly D., October's Jockey Club Gold Cup and November's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic or Classic. That's a five-race scenario of maximum intrigue and accomplishment.

In terms of legacy, however, Rachel Alexandra's existing wins in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward already trump anything she could add in the 2010 Apple Blossom or Stephen Foster. The real historical hurdles would be the potential turf date at Arlington, the 1-1/4 miles of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and an appearance at the Breeders' Cup.

But, you know what? That could be accomplished in the next two months.

What if Rachel Alexandra remained in training and ran next in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then finished up her 2009 season in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf? It's not far-fetched in the least bit. No one of consequence will be in the Gold Cup field that she already has not dispatched, and the Filly & Mare Turf would put her in the best pubic spotlight while avoiding the all-weather surface. Even the great Secretariat ended his 1973 campaign for all-times with a score on the grass, and he did it in world-record style.

Credible trainers sweat every day, worried about the health and soundness of all their racehorses, much less a filly who just might be the best American racehorse since Secretariat. If the ultimate race for Rachel Alexandra's future is at the 2010 Breeders' Cup, and there's nothing on the schedule that you can fathom for her still to accomplish when looking at it critically, then trainer Steve Asmussen had better load up on Pepto Bismol.

For the highest highs that a horse like Rachel Alexandra brings, she also will be putting the trainer on a 426-night schedule of uneasy sleep, upset stomach and crossed fingers that she welcomes him at the barn with a happy and healthy smile each morning.

If the Breeders' Cup truly is Rachel Alexandra's last frontier of accomplishment, both history and a gastrointestinal specialist would agree that she's better off taking her chances with a run this November than next.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the managing partner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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