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Jun 15, 2007

Rags to Riches for Todd Pletcher

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It took 102 years for the third filly to win the Belmont Stakes. It also took a female to upstage the plight of trainer Todd Pletcher. Amid countless Eclipse Awards and stakes victories by the score, the former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas finally got the monkey off his back with a victory in a Triple Crown event.

Rags to Riches was superb on Saturday, holding off even-money favorite Curlin to win the "Test of Champions" at Belmont Park. After stumbling at the start (eerily similar to Curlin’s break in the Preakness), the filly was placed wide around the clubhouse turn by jockey J R Velazquez so she wouldn’t have a ton of dirt kicked in her face by horses right in front of her.

Pletcher’s plan was exercised to perfection throughout the entire race, as Rags to Riches was wide throughout, especially around the far turn. Curlin, on the other hand, stayed closer to the rail, a la Street Sense, but that, among a few other possibilities, was his downfall.

Was the Preakness winner just plain tired down the stretch from four tough races in a 56-day span? Did Rags to Riches benefit from the five-pound weight allowance? The answer to the first question is, no, as Curlin ran his final four furlongs of 1 ½-mile race in 48 seconds flat. He also would have won the Belmont by a wide margin if the filly were not in the race.

The second question gives a little more credence to why Rags to Riches won the race. For the most part, weight is the most overrated angle in horse racing, except when the distances increase to 1 ¼-mile and up. The six colts carried 126 pounds as opposed to 121 for the filly and it was apparent that the difference in weight gave Rags to Riches the slight edge in the 1 ½-mile race, even though she probably would have won if the two had run at equal weights. The bottom line is that she was the much better horse on this particular day. She had by far the tougher of the two trips and still got the job done.


ESPN commentator Randy Morse continually stated throughout the telecast that Rags to Riches, statistically, had the best chance to win of all the previous 28 Triple Crown runners from the Todd Pletcher barn. She went off at 4-1, slightly lower than the 9-2 odds Bluegrass Cat was in last year’s Belmont.

For all his stakes victories and record money earnings, Pletcher had not won a Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont. He also has won just two Breeders’ Cup races in 41 attempts. Many media pundits were questioning his move by entering Rags to Riches in the Belmont as another example of his trying to hard to win a marquee event. They were flat out wrong.

The daughter of A.P. Indy (1992 Belmont winner) is also a half-sister to Jazil (2006 Belmont winner) so the bloodlines were extremely evident. She had dominated her sex with four straight victories, including two wins by a combined 10 lengths in the Kentucky and Santa Anita Oaks. Her Beyer number of 104 on Oaks day at Churchill Downs was higher than every race by her six rivals except for Curlin’s Preakness win and Hard Spun’s second in the Derby.

Rags to Riches was also the fresher horse, having not raced in 36 days, while Curlin and Hard Spun had both run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. She is now the fifth horse in the last six years to win the Belmont Stakes after skipping the Preakness.

It’s true the other fillies Rags to Riches had beaten would have had zero chance against the likes of Curlin since she is, by far and away, the runaway leader in her division. But that didn’t prevent Pletcher from making the decision to send her to New York. He is a master horseman who learned the tricks of the trade from one of the best trainers ever in D. Wayne Lukas. Pletcher was his assistant for many years before going on his own in 1995.

The Dallas native gets criticized at times for his failures, but all that can now be put away to pasture with his win on Saturday. The same can now be said for a filly’s chance to win the Belmont Stakes.


The early pace was slow - 24 3/5 for the first quarter of a mile. Robby Albarado, as expected, had Curlin much closer to the pace, just two lengths off C P West and Slew’s Tizzy down the backstretch. Rags to Riches sat one- half length behind Curlin as the field of seven hit the half in a dawdling 50 seconds flat.

Hard Spun, sent off as the third choice at 5-1, sat third under a tight hold by new rider Garrett Gomez. The positions were virtually unchanged for the entire run down the backstretch, but once they raced around the far turn, Rags to Riches began her assault on the outside, getting the early jump on Curlin. Nevertheless, once Slew’s Tizzy began to fade, a hole opened for Curlin, and the Preakness winner charged alongside C P West at the top of the lane.

Hard Spun was in the three-path with the filly to his outside. Excitement was ecstatic all around the Belmont grandstand as the two top choices (Curlin and Rags to Riches) opened up daylight from Hard Spun and C P West. It was a "down the stretch" duel to remember for the final 3/16ths of a mile as Rags to Riches looked like she was going to run right by Curlin, but the Steve Asmussen-trained colt fought back to close the gap.

The filly opened up a slight lead inside the final 1/8-mile, but once again Curlin came on again. It was like the 12th round of a heavyweight fight with neither horse giving way. The filly, however, proved best as Velazquez, with a smart tactical move, pinned Albarado and Curlin to the rail inside the final 50 yards of the race, making sure Rags to Riches would prevail. And that she did, finally giving Pletcher his moment in the sun.

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