'Rags' Makes History at Belmont
Sunday, June 10, 2007
ELMONT, N.Y., June 9 -- In the weeks leading to the Belmont Stakes, trainer Todd Pletcher uncharacteristically vacillated about entering his fabulous filly Rags to Riches against the boys in the longest race of the Triple Crown series. The leading trainer in the country normally runs a precision outfit, deploying his charges to carefully selected races, but only two fillies in 139 years had ever won the race called "The Test of the Champion," the last in 1905.
When Jim Tafel, the owner of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, took his horse out of the picture, Pletcher decided to make a sporting gamble, and in a hypnotic stretch battle with Preakness Stakes winner Curlin, Rags to Riches showed she might be the best 3-year-old of either sex in the country.
Surging to the front on the outside as the pace of the 1 1/2 -mile race went from very slow to very fast, Rags to Riches pulled away from Hard Spun and held off Curlin's charge along the rail to win the $1 million classic by a head.
After a slow mile pace set by long shot C P West in 1 minute 40.23 seconds, Rags to Riches turned it on in the final half-mile and finished in a sharp 2:28.74.
Pletcher, 39, put to rest any questions about his ability to win a Triple Crown race. His résumé is bulging with Grade I triumphs, but he came into the Belmont 0 for 28 in the most visible races in the country, failing to hit the board with five runners this year in the Kentucky Derby and two more in the Preakness.
When Rags to Riches, who stumbled at the start, took over with a little more than an eighth of a mile to go, the normally reserved Pletcher let his emotions rise to the surface for one of the few times in his career.
"Come on, baby! Come on, baby! Come on, baby! Yeah!" he shouted from his box seat.
In the meantime, jockey John Velazquez, who had failed in 10 attempts to win the Belmont, furiously pumped his right fist as he crossed the finish line.
"It's a special feeling, no matter when you do it, but to do it with a filly when they haven't won it in 102 years, it's really special," Pletcher said. "Stumbling out of the gate and then taking a wide trip around, it's a real credit how good this filly is."
When Pletcher initially failed to commit Rags to Riches to the Belmont, the filly's regular rider, Garrett Gomez, accepted the mount on Hard Spun. When the trainer changed his mind, Gomez, who had ridden Rags to Riches to victory in the Kentucky Oaks, was unable to get out of his commitment. Velazquez, however, managed to extricate himself from his pledge to ride Slew's Tizzy, who wound up last in the Belmont's field of seven.
"Unfortunately for Garrett, he was committed to another horse, but this race goes to him, too," Velazquez said afterward.
Rags to Riches, a $1.9 million auction purchase by owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, was bet down to second choice behind Curlin, who went off at even-money odds.
When the gate opened, Rags to Riches stumbled out, but settled into stride on the outside as C P West and Slew's Tizzy went to the front. Hard Spun, who many thought would use his abundant speed to control the pace from the front, took up a stalking position on the outside in third under a tight hold by Gomez.
Rags to Riches galloped along out of traffic and Curlin saved ground running on the inside under jockey Robby Albarado.
Meanwhile, Hard Spun appeared keyed up and eager to go. Gomez finally turned him loose near the quarter pole, but, as in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the colt didn't have enough punch saved for the stretch.
With Hard Spun fading, Velazquez eyed Curlin to his left and decided it was time to go.
"As soon as I saw Curlin move on the inside, I said, 'This is my time to move and try to outrun him.' "
The two appeared to fuse together, pulling away from Hard Spun and well out of reach of late-running Tiago. Curlin inched closer and closer to the lead, but Rags to Riches never let him squeeze by.
Although a filly, Rags to Riches may have been born to win the Belmont. Her sire, A. P. Indy, won the race in 1992, while her dam, Better Than Honour, also produced Jazil, who took the Belmont last year, making her the first broodmare to foal two Triple Crown race winners.
Pletcher and Tabor both said Rags to Riches might clash with males again, possibly in the Haskell Invitational and the Breeders' Cup Classic. More than likely, she'll race in August in the historic Alabama for fillies at Saratoga.
Pletcher, however, was relishing this victory, likely the biggest of his career.
"The filly will make the decision and show us when and where she's ready to run," he said.
Belmont Chart, E10