The 139th Belmont Stakes was supposed to be dead after the Derby winner went on R & R. But a strange confluence of events occurred and history happened. That’s horse racing. That’s how it works.
It took 102 years for a filly to win the Belmont Stakes and for her trainer seemed almost as long.
The filly’s jockey had never won one of these either but he broke through with a move that began in Queens and ended at the Nassau County finish line, a head in front of the by-a-nose winner of the Preakness in a thrilling redux of last month’s Pimlico show.
History was made by a filly that lived up to her name, first elevating a moribund classic with her presence then etching that name in its record books. Whenever people talk about Rags To Riches, the filly that won the Belmont, one will say she’s so tough she shaves.
She was ready when Curlin, the newest Preakness legend, ran on strongly in another gifted performance. He came back at her for more in the final half-furlong and gave her all she wanted. And she could have, almost should have, given in.
But she shaves. Rags To Riches did three generations of Belmont-winning sires proud by looking a very gifted colt in the eye and staring him down in the shadow of the Belmont wire.
Then Johnny Velazquez was punctuating the air on the gallop-out and Todd Pletcher was as pumped as eyes have ever seen him and somewhere Angel Cordero Jr. was smiling.
Carl Nafzger had better win the Travers now, and maybe the Breeders’ Cup, too, because all of a sudden a three-year-old filly has four Grade 1 victories with Saratoga still six weeks away and she’s the only horse in America this year to pass the Test of a Champion.
This time Curlin was on the inside and the filly outside, out-sprinting him in early stretch then out-staring him deeply into the wire. Everybody thought she was the greatest when she went six wide around both turns Santa Anita to win the Las Vergennes. Guess she just likes it out there.
And maybe it took an upstart named Digger to dig up some enthusiasm for supporting what was a pedestrian five-horse race a week ago. And maybe I owe Larry Roman an apology. Because he must have awakened Patrick Biancone who was in, then out, when Pletcher committed Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith’s filly to the race. Then Nick Zito heard the band, began marching and the Belmont came alive.
But no one expected this.
In becoming the first filly to win the Belmont at its current distance, Rags To Riches made history for herself. Good for her, good for racing fans, good for the game and good for Tabor for giving fans a chance to celebrate a Belmont.
But he couldn’t do it without help from a man who honed her talents and developed her into a star. Not only did she retire the Eclipse Award trophy for sophomore filly but the most accomplished three-year-old racehorse in America is a girl and she put herself in the conversation for Horse of the Year.
Todd Pletcher, like mentor Wayne Lukas, is extremely deft with young horses, especially fillies. Breeding, talent and opportunity aside, this horse was doing so well he couldn’t hold her on the ground, he said. The safer, more prudent Mother Goose was three weeks away. He had to run this feline powder keg before she blew a gasket in the stall.
She stumbled, stumbled, at the start. But Velazquez was Johnny B. Cool. He gathered her, allowed her her head, positioned her where she likes to be and applied pressure ever so slightly when the moderate pace turned glacial.
The dawdling pace actually hurt Hard Spun, stoutly restrained by Garrett Gomez, the regular rider of Rags To Riches, who at that point had his regular mount sitting off his right shoulder. But it wasn’t the Hard Spun of the Derby and Preakness Gomez was riding, the colt appearing uncomfortable over the sandy surface.
But Velazquez, regular rider for Pletcher, was now on the filly after his agent, Cordero, spoke with Greg Fox about their agreement to ride Slew’s Tizzy. And sometimes the game is about more than just money.
Fox agreed to let Velazquez out of his commitment. Gomez honored his, after he agreed to ride Hard Spun while Pletcher was still on the fence with the filly. You couldn’t make this up.
Curlin was a very good, troubled third in Louisville, as Street Sense and Calvin Borel stole the show in a dazzling display of firepower. Then Curlin and Street Sense did their thing in Baltimore. Exit gap left Street Sense; enter gap right Rags To Riches. The filly and Curlin then picked up where Street Sense and Curlin left off in Baltimore.
Amazing how disparate results can produce an unforgettable Triple Crown. Who needs a sweep when one winner, at any time, could produce a magical mystery tour that was the 139th Belmont, and the entire series for that matter?
But that’s how the game is supposed to work when racing people are sporting enough to try. Jolly good show, eh what?