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Archive for Sunday, June 10, 2007

Rags to Riches proves better than the boys

June 10, 2007

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— Rags to Riches can beat the boys, too.

The fabulous filly outdueled Curlin in a breathtaking stretch run and won the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, becoming the first of her sex in more than a century to take the final leg of the Triple Crown.

No one was happier with the victory than trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, who both ended long droughts in Triple Crown races: Pletcher was 0-for-28, Velazquez 0-for-20.

The normally reserved Pletcher was screaming throughout the stretch run, one that had the fans at Belmont Park on their feet roaring as the two stars battled saddlecloth to saddlecloth to the wire.

Rags to Riches, despite a slight stumble at the start, became the third filly to capture the Belmont - Ruthless took the first running in 1867 and Tanya won in 1905. Only 22 fillies have tried the Belmont, with Rags to Riches the first since Silverbulletday finished seventh in 1999.

And what a sensational Belmont it was, even without Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.

When the field of seven 3-year-olds made the turn for home, four horses fought for the lead, with Rags to Riches, the Kentucky Oaks winner, on the outside, and Preakness winner Curlin moving between rivals.

And then it became a two-horse race - a true battle of the sexes. In a furious stretch run, with Velazquez urging his filly on, Rags to Riches won by a head - the same margin Curlin edged Street Sense by in the Preakness three weeks ago.

"The filly ran a great race on the right day," said Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen. "And now they're taking her picture."

Rags to Riches covered the 11â2 miles in 2:28.74, well off Secretariat's track record of 2:24. But time didn't matter in this one.

Rags to Riches was sent off as the 4-1 second choice and returned $10.60, $4.40 and $3.20. Curlin, with Robby Albarado aboard, paid $3 and $2.30. Tiago was third and returned $3.70.

Hard Spun finished fourth, followed by C P West, Imawildandcrazyguy and Slew's Tizzy.

It was Pletcher who made the surprise call to run Rags to Riches, who dominated her own division with four straight victories, including the Oaks five weeks ago at Churchill Downs. The nation's top trainer said the absence of Street Sense, plus his filly's pedigree added up to taking a shot.

The Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the Triple Crown races, is a race that Kentucky Derby winning fillies Winning Colors and Genuine Risk could not win.

Drawing on the bloodlines that carried her father, A.P. Indy, and grandfather, Seattle Slew, to victory in the race, Rags to Riches proved she is as worthy a winner as her half brother, last year's Belmont winner Jazil.

"It's a special feeling to do it with a filly," Pletcher said of his first Triple Crown win. "When she stumbled, I had a bad feeling. When we turned for home and I saw Curlin sneak through on the inside, I knew it was going to be a horse race from there."

Was it ever.

Rags to Riches almost lost her chance at the start, stumbling out of the No. 7 post as the gates opened. But Velazquez and the filly quickly regained their cool and caught up to the pack. Meanwhile, long-shots C P West and Slew's Tizzy were setting a slow pace. By the time the field hit the far turn, Rags to Riches took to the outside to make her move. Curlin, though, had to wait to come off the rail.

By the top of the stretch, the filly had the jump and she never gave in despite Curlin's best effort.

"I have such a high regard for Curlin," Pletcher said. "It's just a credit to what a horse she (Rags to Riches) is."

When the filly was brought back to the winner's circle, Pletcher was pleased with the reception.

"As a rule, we're probably the one everyone is rooting against," he said. "We were the underdog today, and that was kind of sweet."

Pletcher wasn't even going to run Rags to Riches if the top three finishers from the Derby and Preakness met again in New York. But when Street Sense dropped out, Rags to Riches was in, and came through with a history-making victory.

Not only is she the undisputed queen of racing, she's also a head above the boys. Pletcher sad the filly may race against the boys this summer, in either the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park of the Travers at Saratoga. He also mentioned two top filly races as possibilities, the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama.

"It's way too premature to make a decision right this second," he said. "We have to let this settle. And first and foremost, we have to see how the filly comes out."

While there was no Triple Crown on the line for the third year in a row, the races produced some sensational performances. Street Sense made a daring run up the rail to win the Derby, then was edged at the wire by Curlin in the Preakness. Rags to Riches finished off the series with a championship performance in the "Test of the Champion."

Rags to Riches earned $600,000 to boost her bankroll to $1,292,528 for owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, who bought the filly for $1.9 million at the Keeneland September yearling sale.

After finishing fourth in her only race as a 2-year-old, Rags to Riches is unbeaten in five starts this year, the first four with Garrett Gomez aboard and this time with Velazquez after a series of jockey changes before the race.

Perhaps her three-quarter length win in the Las Virgenes was her most impressive as she raced five-wide around the first turn and four-wide around the second turn but still managed to win. The race was similar to what she pulled off in the Belmont against some of the best colts in the country.

Then it was on to 51â2-length win in the Santa Anita Oaks and a 41â4-length win in the Kentucky Oaks.

And now, a Belmont champion.

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