They all wondered:
How good can she be? On cold spring mornings in Kentucky, retired Hall of Fame
jockey Angel Cordero exercised a colt alongside the filly Rags to Riches and
watched her effortless athleticism, a sweet running action possessed by only
the rarest of racehorses. "Everything looks so easy for her," Cordero
recalls thinking. "She goes fast, she goes slow, she's so handy. She can do
On a rainy afternoon one day before the running of the May�5 Kentucky
Derby, 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 win
the Kentucky Oaks, a prestigious race for 3-year-old fillies. "That's some
nice filly," said Zito to a writer.
should 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 before
last Saturday's Belmont Stakes, trainer Todd Pletcher decided to enter Rags to
Riches in the 1 1?2-mile final leg of the Triple Crown, challenging six colts,
including the precocious Curlin, who had won the Preakness after finishing
second 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 Pletcher
waffled 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 to
Riches, but Hard Spun's connections would not release him. "She is such a
magnificent filly," Gomez said after the Belmont. "I just knew we would
see a great display from her."
No, not great--one
for the ages. On a gray late afternoon Rags to Riches became the Belmont's
first filly champion in 102 years with a performance that was equal parts
brilliance and courage. Running far wide for much of her circuit after
stumbling out of the gate, she took the lead in the stretch under jockey John
Velazquez 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 Curlin
rallied. Together they ran the last two furlongs in 23.83�seconds, the
fastest final quarter in a Belmont since 1934.
For the third
consecutive year the Belmont was run with no Triple Crown at stake; the race
was further diminished when the Street Sense camp opted to pass. Something
dramatic was desperately needed, and Rags to Riches provided it.
A daughter of 1992
Belmont winner A.P.�Indy, Rags to Riches is a beautiful, nearly red
chestnut with a broad white blaze who was purchased by Englishmen Michael Tabor
and 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 straight
against her own gender this spring, including a dominant victory in the Santa
Anita Oaks on March�11. "At that point, we came close to running her
in the Santa Anita Derby [against colts]," says Pletcher, who got his first
win in a Triple Crown race after 28 losses. Instead he took the more
conservative route: an eight-week layoff before her victory in the Kentucky
his filly like an heirloom. "She might be good enough to win the Kentucky
Derby," he said while watching Rags to Riches gallop in the predawn fog at
Keeneland in April. "But right now I don't want to mess her up trying to do
that because I like her too much."
Rags to Riches ran
in the Belmont only after Street Sense was held out of the race, which left a
softer field. For racing fans it was a reminder that equine stars seldom linger
in the spotlight before they are hustled off to the breeding shed. There was a
hole in the race and a hole in the sport. Rags to Riches filled it.