Call it fate. Call it kismet.
Whatever title you prefer, Rags to Riches seemed destined to give trainer Todd
Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez their first classic winner.
Although "Johnny V" has been
Pletcher's first-call rider for years, it took a last-minute decision to run
the filly and a madcap jockey scramble to bring them together for the 139th
Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Because of their longtime
relationship and numerous frustrations and disappointments in the classics, you
had the feeling that when their moment did come it would be with great fanfare.
But how could that be achieved?
Pletcher has never been known to evoke such fervor, especially from the New York fans. Because
of his never-ending arsenal of stakes winners, his stoic personality in the
public arena, and his unprecedented domination of New York racing, he would need a special
horse to reach into people's hearts and allow them to see the soul that lies
within Team Pletcher's machine-like organization.
Rags to Riches was such a horse,
and when Pletcher provided the final leg of the Triple Crown with a much-needed
shot in the arm by announcing his $1.9-million glamour queen would take on the
mighty Curlin and other top colts in the 1 1/2-mile classic, he lit the fuse
that would set off a raucous round of fireworks at Belmont Park June 9.
Four days after the decision by
Pletcher and owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith to run Rags to Riches,
there she was, charging down the stretch in the Belmont locked in furious
combat with the brilliant, tough, and determined Curlin, whose meteoric rise to
stardom was one victory away from taking on legendary proportions.
The crowd of 46,870, the smallest
since 1996, was on its feet as the feisty filly and the brawny colt looked each
other in the eye, neither budging an inch. One of the great battles in Triple
Crown history was on.
There is a saying attributed to
both Eleanor Roosevelt and Carl Sandburg: "A woman is like a tea bag. It's only
when she's in hot water that you realize how strong she is."
Curlin put Rags to Riches in
scalding water down the Belmont
stretch, but it was he who got burned.
Rags to Riches, who had stumbled
badly at the start and then raced wide the entire way, took the outside route,
while Curlin, who had saved ground, split horses inside her with a quick burst
of speed. Now, as they honed in on each other, it was time to see which one had
the strongest will. It was a classic male vs. female confrontation, something
you don't see in most other sports.
Rags to Riches' powerful
four-wide move had enabled her to outrun Curlin and establish a slight
advantage turning for home. Curlin fought back, as both horses switched to
their right lead on cue. Velazquez threw a wide cross on the reins to gather
the filly, while Robby Albarado went to a right-handed whip, causing Curlin to
duck in, away from the filly. When Albarado switched to a series of left-handed
whips, Curlin came back out and bumped Rags to Riches. But the filly, who has
been manhandling humans since she was a baby, was not about to be intimidated
by the powerful chestnut. Albarado continued to hit Curlin left-handed, and
again he came out and bumped Rags to Riches, who again shrugged it off.
Velazquez resorted to only a
single left-handed whip, then switched and gave her one right-handed whip. Her
blood was up, and Velazquez realized she needed little encouragement. Although
Curlin kept digging in and battling back, Rags to Riches refused to relinquish
her head advantage. As she eased in slightly and Curlin again came out into
her, the two were leaning all over each other as the wire approached.
Most horses, especially fillies,
would have been intimidated by the contact from a bruiser like Curlin, but Rags
to Riches seemed to relish this test of superiority. Velazquez now was just
waving the whip and leaving it all up to her. With sheer grit, determination,
and tenacity, Rags to Riches kept her head advantage to the finish following a
sizzling final quarter-mile in :23.83.
The daughter of A.P. Indy out
of Better Than Honour, by Deputy Minister, had become the first filly in 102
years to win the Belmont, joining Ruthless, who won the inaugural running in
1867, and Tanya, in 1905. Rags to Riches' half-brother, Jazil, captured the Belmont last year for
Pletcher's former colleague and close friend Kiaran McLaughlin. Both Pletcher
and McLaughlin once worked as assistants to D. Wayne Lukas.
Throughout the grandstand, the
disciplined Pletcher machine unraveled in a burst of emotion during the stretch
run. Burdened with an 0-for-28 record in Triple Crown races, Pletcher unleashed
a flurry of eight short jabs into an invisible opponent, while urging on his
filly: "Come on, baby; come on, baby," he pleaded. As she crossed the finish
line, he jumped up, flinging his fist in the air, and then kissed his wife
Tracy, knocking her hat off.
Pletcher's rush of adrenaline was
able to briefly overpower the body aches and fever that had knocked him out for
two days. So bad was his flu, he awoke five times the night before the Belmont and had to change
his T-shirt each time because he was sweating so profusely. His stable crew
realized how sick he was when he didn't show up at the barn Saturday morning.
Rags to Riches' exercise rider,
Lauren Robson, watched in a nearby box with Velazquez' wife, Leona, and her
family and Velazquez' longtime friend and agent, Hall of Fame rider Angel
"There were drinks flying
everywhere," Robson said. "Leona was in tears right away and she put me in
tears. It was so great because Todd and Johnny have been together for so long."
Assistant trainer Seth Benzel,
who has 90 horses at Saratoga,
watched the race on TV at home. "I didn't stop shaking until 1 o'clock last
night," he said the next morning. "When they came down the stretch, I was out
of my seat riding her as hard as anybody. I couldn't shake it off after
the race and called my mom and dad. She is just so special. I can't wait for her
to get up here; we'll have a regal stall waiting for her."
Watching at Churchill Downs was
assistant Mike McCarthy, who has been with Rags to Riches for most of her
career, and in fact was her trainer of record for her first two starts this
year while Pletcher was serving a suspension.
"I can't even put into words what
it was like watching her," McCarthy said. "At the three-eighths pole I kept
thinking this is really going to happen. And then at the quarter pole I
thought, ‘This is it. This is what we've been working for.' After it was over
there was a feeling of closure. We had made history, and Todd finally had his
classic. That meant a lot to us."
Later on, Robson called McCarthy
and Rags to Riches' former exercise rider Justin Curran. "Oh, my God, we'll
never see a horse like this again," she told Curran. "I wish you could have
been here. You guys did such a good job with her; you brought her up from the
start. I'll give her a pat for you."
Cordero won his share of Triple
Crown races during his career, but this one was extra special. It was Cordero
who discovered Velazquez from a videotape of the apprentice rider in action in Puerto Rico. Cordero brought Velazquez to America and
mentored the young rider, eventually taking over Velazquez' book following his
retirement as a jockey and as a trainer, and hooked him up with Pletcher as his
No. 1 rider. From the time Velazquez came to this country, he has looked up to
Cordero as a father figure.
Since the union of Cordero,
Velazquez, and Pletcher, the three have formed a bond that goes far beyond that
of agent, jockey, and trainer. It is about friendship and loyalty. Cordero, who
also exercises horses for Pletcher, needed both desperately after the tragic
hit-and-run death of his wife, Marjorie, in January 2001.
"Johnny and Todd came into my
life at the right time and they both helped me deal with my loss," Cordero
said. "I love my career, but I lost half of my heart when my wife died. Other
than my kids I didn't have anything I wanted anymore. I was too old to still be
a good athlete and I knew I'd never find a woman like her, so, to me, life was
over. That was the end of me. Time may help the wounds feel a little better,
but it never heals them. It's been almost seven years since she died, and I
still miss her and I still cry for her. God gave me a great career and a great
woman, but it was my kids and Johnny and Todd that kept my life together."
The Pletcher organization has
been perceived by most to be fueled by nothing more than wins and dollar signs,
but it took a special filly to show the world that there is a passion and a
love for the horse that is first and foremost behind its success.
The story of the 2007 Belmont actually began
with the pop heard round the racing world. When trainer Carl Nafzger and owner
James Tafel stuck the proverbial pin in the Belmont balloon, withdrawing Street Sense
from the race, it all but deflated the third leg of the Triple Crown. Without
the winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), the Belmont looked to be a
mundane affair with Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Curlin taking on a small
group of challengers.
"I told Mr. Tafel that some
people are going to love us and some people are going to hate us," Nafzger
said. "We were going to the Triple Crown, and I didn't think they were going to
beat this colt. I got cocky, but when Curlin kicked my butt, and he did kick my
butt, it changed things. I was so let down after the Preakness."
Street Sense's defection left
Curlin as the sole headliner in the Belmont,
much to the dismay of racing fans, the New York Racing Association, and ABC,
which had seen its Triple Crown storyline disappear in the closing jump of the
Preakness. Then the big showdown angle evaporated as well. All that remained
was Curlin, racing's budding superstar whose main competition looked to be the
indefatigable Hard Spun, the only other combatant from the Derby and Preakness still looking for a
When Hard Spun's trainer, Larry
Jones, and owner Rick Porter agreed to replace jockey Mario Pino, it set wheels
in motion in several directions. Velazquez, who had ridden Circular Quay in the
Derby and Preakness, and who had never been aboard Rags to Riches, had little
hope of lining up a mount from Pletcher in the Belmont, so he signed on to ride
Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) and Lone Star Derby (gr. III) winner Slew's
When Rags to Riches' regular
rider, Garrett Gomez, had a chance to replace Pino on Hard Spun, his agent, Ron
Anderson, asked Pletcher about the filly's Belmont status.
"Ron came by and said, ‘What are
you going to do with the filly?' " Pletcher said. "I said I really don't think
we're going to run if Street Sense, Curlin, and Hard Spun all run. I thought
Street Sense was going to run at that stage. Ron was able to buy a couple of days,
but he was getting pressure to make a commitment, so I told him, ‘You've got to
do what you have to do, and I can't blame you. I don't want to hold you up.' "
Anderson took the mount on Hard Spun, but when Street Sense was
withdrawn and Rags to Riches eventually was declared a starter the day before
entries were drawn, he went to Jones to survey the situation, and Jones said he
intended for Gomez to ride Hard Spun as agreed upon. That opened the door for
Cordero and Velazquez, but they too had made a commitment and needed to be
released by Slew's Tizzy's trainer, Greg Fox.
"I wasn't surprised when they
came to me," Fox said. "It's very much a part of racing, and I told them they
could ride the filly and I would make an adjustment. John Velazquez and Todd Pletcher
are part of the same family as far as I'm concerned. How can you not ride for
So, Velazquez somehow had found
his way aboard Rags to Riches. Destiny seemed to be directing Pletcher and
Velazquez, who was 0-for-20 in Triple Crown races, to their first classic
How appropriate it would be to
have Rags to Riches get the albatross off Pletcher's back. When Lukas was
getting hammered by the media for being 0-for-12 in the Kentucky Derby, despite
his unprecedented success in other races, it took a filly, Winning Colors, to
break his losing streak. After that, the floodgates opened for Lukas.
Pletcher felt Rags to Riches, who
was bred in Kentucky
by Skara Glen Stables, was special the minute he laid eyes on her. "I saw her
at the Keeneland September yearling sale and loved her then," he said. "She had
a great head and a smart eye. She was very well balanced and athletic-looking,
with a great walk. You see all that and then you look down at the pedigree page
and you say, ‘Wow!' We got her in at Churchill in early April last year and
started breezing her Derby
week. Just watching her the very first time she breezed, it was obvious she was
Pletcher, Tabor, and Smith knew
what they had right from the start from the glowing reports from David Scanlon,
who broke the filly at his training center in Ocala, Fla. "We used to call her
the runway model, because she was all legs and absolutely gorgeous," Scanlon
said. "But she had her own attitude. She was a dominant female. When you walked
in the barn, she'd have her head sticking out, and when you went to pet her
she'd stomp her feet and start squealing. She had her own regimen and you did
things to fit her schedule. Basically, she wanted to go to the
track, eat, do her deal, and be left alone. You didn't want to get in a fight
with her; you just wanted to work out an agreement. But once she got on the
racetrack, she'd just float out there. She was such a beautiful moving filly."
After finishing an excellent
fourth in her career debut, in which she broke slowly, dropped back to last,
and had to go seven-wide, she was sent to Saratoga,
but suffered a setback that required time, and was shipped to Ashford Stud near
When Rags to Riches returned late
last year, she was ready to conquer the world. But she was still quite a
handful, so Pletcher contacted Diane Volz, who has been doing physical therapy
on Pletcher's horses for years, and asked her to order another CHI infrasound
machine, which she hooked up above Rags to Riches' stall.
"The first time I worked on her
she came at me with her mouth wide open," Volz recalled. "But with the CHI
she's come around and mellowed. The CHI stimulates the alpha waves-or early
sleep waves-and helps them settle down and relax."
Rags to Riches broke her maiden
at Santa Anita in spectacular fashion by six lengths, after which she won the
Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) with an amazing wide run throughout. That was
followed by easy victories in the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) and Kentucky Oaks (gr. I),
the latter over a sealed muddy track.
Then came her unscheduled quest
for greatness in the Belmont,
which drew a field of seven that also included Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner
Tiago; Imawildandcrazyguy, a fast-closing fourth in the Kentucky Derby; and
Preakness fourth-place finisher C P West.
Pletcher's Belmont day wasn't going very well, as he
suffered defeats in the Birdstone Stakes with A. P. Arrow; the True North
Handicap (gr. II) with Keyed Entry; the Just a Game Stakes (gr. IIT) with Wait
a While; and the Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. II) with Deadly
Dealer. His fortunes changed with Cotton Blossom's victory in the Acorn Stakes
(gr. I), but he suffered another defeat when English
Channel was beaten a head in the Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT).
Weak and rubber-legged, Pletcher
had one more race to go. "A Belmont
victory would certainly pick my head up," he said as he headed to the paddock.
Any thoughts of victory were
diminished at the start when Rags to Riches stumbled coming out of the gate.
"My heart stopped," Velazquez said. "The first thing I thought of was,
hopefully, she doesn't pull a shoe and get hurt."
If Pletcher was sick before the
race, he had to feel downright awful after watching the break. "I was
absolutely devastated," he said. "I was so upset I threw my binoculars down. I
thought I had blown it by running her."
Rags to Riches never missed
a beat, but was in danger of going extremely wide when C P West floated Slew's
Tizzy out toward the middle of the track. Velazquez was able to move in several
paths, but was still some four or five wide. Down the backstretch, C P West
still led through dawdling fractions of :24.74, :50.14, and 1:15.32, while
racing three paths off the rail. Rags to Riches, sent off at 4-1, was seven
wide, with Curlin, the even-money favorite, tucked in on the inside behind C P
West and Slew's Tizzy and directly inside Hard Spun.
Hard Spun, who was under a tight
hold by Gomez down the backstretch and running more than five seconds
slower than he had in the Preakness, had Curlin bottled up. After a mile in a
lethargic 1:40.23, Gomez made his move on Hard Spun, with Curlin still biding
his time waiting for an opening. Rags to Riches made steady progress on the far
outside and moved up to challenge. Just then, Albarado, with a watchful eye on
the filly, shot Curlin through a gap between C P West and Hard Spun and seemed
to have beaten Rags to Riches to the punch. But Rags to Riches also surged and
charged past Curlin by nearly a half-length. However, the Preakness winner
battled back and the race for greatness was on.
With the crowd cheering wildly,
Rags to Riches, in receipt of a five-pound sex allowance, won by a head in
2:28.74, with a game Curlin finishing 5 1/2 lengths ahead of Tiago, who was
compromised by a severe bumping incident with Imawildandcrazyguy at the break,
the slow pace, traffic problems, and a dreadful stay in the pre-race monitoring
barn, which necessitated his having to be taken outside to graze. It was
another 5 1/2 lengths back to Hard Spun in fourth.
Not only did Rags to Riches come
home her final quarter in :23 4/5, she closed her final half in a sensational
:47 4/5 after racing 4- to 5-wide the entire way. Slow pace or
not, that is motoring at the end of a mile and a half race. And hats off to
Curlin, who ran yet another sensational race. It is amazing what this colt has
accomplished in such a short period of time.
The ovation for Rags to Riches
swelled to a glorious crescendo as Velazquez brought her up the stretch and
saluted the crowd. "As a rule, we're probably the ones everybody's rooting
against," Pletcher said. "But this reception was unbelievable." Velazquez said
it gave him goose bumps.
"That was unreal," Tabor said.
"What a filly. I have so much confidence in her. I always thought she could do
Trainer Steve Asmussen said he
was "very proud" of Curlin, calling him a throwback. "I can't say enough about
him; he's a competitor," he said. "And she's a deserving classic winner. To
lose one the exact same way we won one, we better learn how to take it."
So ended one of the most
memorable Triple Crowns of all time, concluding with one of the greatest Belmonts ever run. Rags
to Riches had won it for the ladies, beating a rough and tough male at his own
game. Following the race, a group of female photographers, who also claim to be
Rags to Riches' adoring legion, bowed down to her highness.
Pletcher was back at his barn the
next morning well before 5 o'clock, taking care of business in his office as a
bright and alert Rags to Riches was brought out to graze by her hotwalker,
What a difference 24 hours make.
The morning before, Pletcher was saying, "I don't know how I'm going to make it
through the day."
As Benzel said, "He's the
But on this day, the ultimate
warrior was a courageous chestnut filly who inscribed herself, her trainer, and
her jockey into the history books.