A downcast Todd Pletcher had just seen Lookin At Lucky overpower his Kentucky Derby winner for the second straight time, and it stung. The Haskell was Super Saver's chance to redeem an eighth-place flop in the Preakness, but all he could manage Aug. 1 at Monmouth Park was a fading fourth.
Super Saver had done nothing to answer the skeptics who downplayed his Derby upset as the product of a perfect trip at his favorite track on a sloppy surface he loved. Even when you win America's most coveted race, there's always more to prove, and Super Saver hasn't done it. Saturday at Saratoga, he gets a second shot to restore his reputation in the Grade I, $1-million Travers Stakes.
Nobody else in the 11-horse field has won at 1¼ miles, and division leader Lookin At Lucky won't be there. So if Super Saver fails again, he could be dismissed as a mud-loving one-hit wonder like last year's Derby winner, Mine That Bird. He drew the outside post and is the 6-1 co-third choice with Afleet Express, behind 7-2 A Little Warm and Trappe Shot (4-1).
"I think he's going to run an improved race from the Haskell,'' Pletcher said. "Having that race under his belt has helped. He's maneuvered through a big field before, and it looks as if there should be plenty of pace early . . . Sometimes the No. 11 might be a little farther out than you'd ideally like, but at 1¼ miles it's OK.'''
The two-week break between the Derby and Preakness was too short for Super Saver. "Everybody thought [the Derby] was a fluke,''' rider Calvin Borel said, "and he didn't show up that day. I just think he was so gutted.''
Pletcher rarely runs horses on only 14 days' rest, but a chance for a Triple Crown meant he had to. Then after the Haskell, he speculated the 11-week break might have been too long.
"He was a little sharper in the paddock than I would've liked,''' he said. "He got a beautiful trip. He just got a little tired off the layoff.'''
Maybe four weeks off will set up Super Saver just right. If not, Pletcher will be 0-for-3 in this meeting's marquee events. Quality Road lost a photo in the Whitney, and Devil May Care ran fourth in the Alabama. Both were odds-on.
Pletcher, 43, is a certain Hall of Famer, and his huge stable is racing's version of the Yankees. Fair or not, his losses are often bigger news than his victories. Finally, the story about his Derby schneid won't be a spring perennial, and he's on his way to his seventh Spa title. Still, he doesn't want to let another big one slip away.
Neither does Elliott Walden, the racing manager and vice president of WinStar Farm, which bred and owns Super Saver.
"We hope he learned something from the Haskell,'' Walden said. "He's set up to run very, very well. He's got to step up.''