They all wondered:How good can she be? On cold spring mornings in Kentucky, retired Hall of Famejockey Angel Cordero exercised a colt alongside the filly Rags to Riches andwatched her effortless athleticism, a sweet running action possessed by onlythe rarest of racehorses. "Everything looks so easy for her," Corderorecalls thinking. "She goes fast, she goes slow, she's so handy. She can dosomething special."
On a rainy afternoon one day before the running of the May¬†5 KentuckyDerby, rival trainer Nick Zito stood alone in the Churchill Downs paddock,gazing up at a giant television screen as Rags to Riches crushed 13 foes to winthe Kentucky Oaks, a prestigious race for 3-year-old fillies. "That's somenice filly," said Zito to a writer.
"Maybe sheshould be running tomorrow," said the writer, and Zito arched his eyebrows.That, of course, was pure fantasy. She had run her race for the weekend.
Four days beforelast Saturday's Belmont Stakes, trainer Todd Pletcher decided to enter Rags toRiches in the 1 1‚ÅÑ2-mile final leg of the Triple Crown, challenging six colts,including the precocious Curlin, who had won the Preakness after finishingsecond to Street Sense in the Derby. Garrett Gomez had been Rags to Riches'rider in four consecutive victories from January to the Oaks, but as Pletcherwaffled about the Belmont, Gomez agreed to replace Mario Pino on Hard Spun.Once Pletcher committed to Saturday's race Gomez pleaded to get back on Rags toRiches, but Hard Spun's connections would not release him. "She is such amagnificent filly," Gomez said after the Belmont. "I just knew we wouldsee a great display from her."
No, not great--onefor the ages. On a gray late afternoon Rags to Riches became the Belmont'sfirst filly champion in 102 years with a performance that was equal partsbrilliance and courage. Running far wide for much of her circuit afterstumbling out of the gate, she took the lead in the stretch under jockey JohnVelazquez and held off Curlin by a short head in a withering drive to the wire.Twice, Rags to Riches seemed poised to finish off Curlin and twice Curlinrallied. Together they ran the last two furlongs in 23.83¬†seconds, thefastest final quarter in a Belmont since 1934.
For the thirdconsecutive year the Belmont was run with no Triple Crown at stake; the racewas further diminished when the Street Sense camp opted to pass. Somethingdramatic was desperately needed, and Rags to Riches provided it.
A daughter of 1992Belmont winner A.P.¬†Indy, Rags to Riches is a beautiful, nearly redchestnut with a broad white blaze who was purchased by Englishmen Michael Taborand Derrick Smith for $1.9¬†million at Keeneland in September¬†2005.Maturing slowly, she raced just once as a 2-year-old but won three straightagainst her own gender this spring, including a dominant victory in the SantaAnita Oaks on March¬†11. "At that point, we came close to running herin the Santa Anita Derby [against colts]," says Pletcher, who got his firstwin in a Triple Crown race after 28 losses. Instead he took the moreconservative route: an eight-week layoff before her victory in the KentuckyOaks.
Pletcher treatedhis filly like an heirloom. "She might be good enough to win the KentuckyDerby," he said while watching Rags to Riches gallop in the predawn fog atKeeneland in April. "But right now I don't want to mess her up trying to dothat because I like her too much."
Rags to Riches ranin the Belmont only after Street Sense was held out of the race, which left asofter field. For racing fans it was a reminder that equine stars seldom lingerin the spotlight before they are hustled off to the breeding shed. There was ahole in the race and a hole in the sport. Rags to Riches filled it.
A gallery of pictures from a filly's historic day atthe Belmont.
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A late fill-in, Velazquez rode a brilliant race aboard the filly (opposite),who upset Curlin.