Steve Haskin's Belmont Recap: Wonder Woman

Steve Haskin's Belmont Recap: Wonder Woman
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Rags to Riches gives Pletcher and Velazquez their first classic win.
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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 Cordero Jr.

“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 fight.

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 Tizzy.

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 your family?”

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 victory.

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 pretty special.”

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 Versailles, Ky.

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 it.”

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, Isabel Escobar.

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 ultimate warrior.”

But on this day, the ultimate warrior was a courageous chestnut filly who inscribed herself, her trainer, and her jockey into the history books.

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