Commentary

Rachel, Super Saver face crossroads

Updated: August 27, 2010, 8:48 AM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Forgive the face of horse racing if it sports a look of concern at any point this weekend. Calvin Borel has a lot riding on Saturday's Travers Stakes and Sunday's Personal Ensign Handicap, both at historic Saratoga. It's not often you pilot a Kentucky Derby winner and a filly for the ages in a 24-hour span. What's even rarer is the make-or-break crossroads facing both Super Saver and Rachel Alexandra.

Two of the sport's most recognizable horses will be in the hands of the most well-known mainstream jockey since the late Bill Shoemaker posed shoulder-to-hip with Wilt Chamberlain in the old American Express ads of two decades ago. Borel's magical mystery tours in three of the past four Kentucky Derbies have made him a regular on "The Tonight Show" and the one guy Sunday school teachers and department store workers can identify with horse racing.

Forget that you think Julien Leparoux or Rafael Bejarano are better riders. Forget that you hate the hype or the fact that Borel is "Super Man" at Churchill Downs and merely a cardboard cutout of Clark Kent everywhere else (except maybe Oaklawn). Calvin Borel is THE face of horse racing right now and he guides the fortunes of two horses who desperately need a stroke of his magic wand.

Super Saver is a race away from joining the Derby-winning fraternity of Giacomo or Mine That Bird, relegated to a trivia answer and a place on the back of a collectible glass. After highly disappointing efforts in the Preakness and Haskell, there aren't many places left for a Derby winner to earn his mojo back. Sea Hero, a Champagne winner at 2 and the Derby champ at 3, was on the brink of that "fluke" label in 1993 after a similar, perfect-trip victory on the first Saturday in May. But Sea Hero righted the ship in the Travers and validated his quality. Super Saver could make a similar save with a big Travers effort Saturday.

It might also be an elimination game of sorts for his career. Honestly, you must wonder: How many more races does Super Saver have left on the track as a representative from the breeding/racing juggernaut WinStar Farm? A bad effort Saturday and it could be his last dance. They're not going to let his reputation rot and his stud value plummet. A victory or strong performance puts him back into the fall discussion en route to the Breeders' Cup.

Rachel Alexandra is a more complicated discussion compared to Super Saver. While the colt must validate his greatness, the filly already has done that beyond any debate. But Rachel Alexandra might be on even more tenuous ground Sunday in the Personal Ensign in terms of what her race means moving forward.

The Personal Ensign is Rachel's first attempt at 1¼ miles, and that's also the distance of the Breeders' Cup Classic. The big question with Rachel Alexandra always has been her ability to get that stamp at the classic American distance. It's about the only remaining hurdle left for her to climb in a remarkable career.

If the 10 furlongs happen to trip up the fuller-bodied 4-year-old filly on Sunday, it's almost impossible to imagine that she will compete in the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall at Churchill Downs. After bypassing the two championship days altogether last year because of the synthetic surface, her connections brought Rachel back in 2010 with the dirt at Churchill circled for the fall.

But if Sunday's stepping-stone stumps Rachel, the entire "big picture" of her return changes. No longer does 2010 become the championship showcase of a brilliant filly of the ages, but rather a series of races that will always leave fans thinking that they've already seen an Oscar winner and now are watching just another really good actress playing lesser roles. A calendar the rest of the way that doesn't include the Classic will be a letdown after her 2009 campaign for all-time.

A potential showdown with unbeaten Zenyatta also could go awry if the Breeders' Cup Classic is removed from the table. The connections of Zenyatta have not taken a challenging path this year outside of a trip to Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom, but no one believes they won't line up in the 1¼-mile Classic at Churchill Downs versus the 1 1/8-mile Ladies' Classic. Rest assured, they won't go backward hunting Rachel Alexandra at her favorite distance if Rachel shows she's not up to 1¼ miles. So if there's ever going to be a Rachel-versus-Zenyatta clash, Sunday's distance test must be passed.

Personally, I'm rooting for both Super Saver and Rachel Alexandra to not only prop up and enhance their own lofty reputations, but to also solidify two institutions critical to the good vibrations of the racing industry. The Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup don't need anything detracting from their greatness. Super Saver can prove the Derby is not the cavalry-charge fluke some say it has become, and Rachel Alexandra can give the beleaguered Breeders' Cup something big-time to look forward to with open arms this November.

Here's wishing safe trips and smooth sailing for Calvin Borel this weekend. It's a lot of pressure to put on anyone's shoulders. But I, for one, hope the face of racing flashes nothing but smiles at the end of this all-important weekend.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com. You can e-mail Jeremy at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.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.