ELMONT — Let’s try this again, shall we?
And if you think I’m going to waste an opportunity to talk about Rags to Riches and the 2007 Belmont Stakes, you don’t know me.
We had a filly in the Preakness three weeks ago, providing an opportunity to listen to trainer D. Wayne Lukas reminisce about the likes of Winning Colors and Lady’s Secret.
His filly, Secret Oath, ran pretty well in finishing fourth at Pimlico on May 21, but the plan all along was to get her back to her own division after that race, so Lukas will point her toward Saratoga and races like the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama.
With any luck, Saratoga fans will also get to see Nest in those races in a rematch of the top two from the Kentucky Oaks, but in the meantime Nest has her own business against males to settle first, in Saturday’s 154th Belmont Stakes.
Her presence in the Belmont naturally conjures images of Rags to Riches, since Todd Pletcher trains Nest and also trained Rags to Riches. Rags to Riches’ victory in a stretch duel for the ages against Curlin in the 2007 Belmont was such a thrill that it moved the typically stoic Pletcher to throw a roundhouse punch into the sky, followed by a flailing, teeth-gritted palm slap with somebody.
As Randy Moss said on the ABC broadcast, “You could go 100 years and not see Todd Pletcher show the emotion he just showed.”
There’s quite a bit to unpack from that one punch.
The 100-year span was a reference to 1905, the last time a filly (Tanya in 1905) had won the Belmont. Fillies don’t run against males very often in the U.S., and even more rarely do they beat them in the biggest races. A total of 23 fillies have run in the Belmont, and Rags to Riches, Tanya and Ruthless, who won the first Belmont in 1867, have finished first.
The 2007 Belmont also lifted a tremendous weight off Pletcher’s shoulders, since it was his first victory in one of the Triple Crown races after a long and well-populated oh-fer streak.
It also validated a vision and a plan he and the owners had for Rags to Riches that disregarded gender.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it gave the sport of Thoroughbred racing an instant classic, a moment that people are still talking about with wonder 15 years later.
“Even sometimes today, if I’m in an airport or something, I have people come up to me and tell me,” Pletcher said at his Belmont barn on Friday morning. “Especially around that time when it happened, a lot of people made comments about how exciting of a race it was and how cool it was to watch, just random people. It was a race that generated a lot of fans.”
I watched that Belmont from the winner’s circle, and it remains one of the coolest sporting events I’ve seen live.
Ridden by John Velazquez, Rags to Riches stumbled out of the gate from the outside post, but was able to maintain contact down the backstretch in the back of a clump of horses who weren’t moving particularly quickly.
She was on the outside as they came around the second turn, and after Hard Spun dropped back from between Rags to Riches and Curlin, it came down to the two of them for the length of the interminable Belmont stretch.
The roar from a crowd of 47,000 chased them down the straightaway, with Curlin and jockey Robby Albarado getting a nose back in front momentarily, only to relinquish it to lose by a head.
“It was one of, if not the most exciting races for me personally,” Pletcher said. “Especially at the start when she went to her nose, I thought that was kind of the end of it there. So many emotions go through your mind watching that race, from the beginning, and then to the top of the stretch it looks like she’s going to win, it looks like Curlin’s going to battle back … it was a fun race to watch. I go back and watch it every once in awhile.”
The decision to run Rags to Riches by Pletcher and co-owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith in the Belmont was a gutsy one, but there was calculation behind it, too.
They also needed one important piece to fall, well, out of place, and it did, when the connections for Derby winner Street Sense, who was second to Curlin in the Preakness, chose not to run in the Belmont.
“That was an outstanding 3-year-old colt crop,” Pletcher said. “You had Street Sense win the Derby, you had Curlin win the Preakness, and Hard Spun was a super-nice horse.
“So we were sort of gauging are all three of these colts going to run back in the Belmont? Or are we going to have to take on two of the three? How’s it going to unfold? And of course we wanted to see how she was training.
“The one thing we were convinced of is that she wanted to run that far. She was truly, truly bred for the Belmont, being an A.P. Indy, being a half-sister to a Belmont winner [Jazil]. Everything from that standpoint was giving us confidence to run her. Then when she trained well and Street Sense decided not to run, it all kept coming together.”
In fact, Rags to Riches completed the only three-generation series of Belmont winners in the history of the race. Seattle Slew won it in 1977 to complete the Triple Crown, and he went on to sire A.P. Indy, who won the Belmont in 1992.
In a nice little twist, Nest was sired by Curlin.
Based in part on her pedigree, she was nominated to the Triple Crown in January, with no intention of running in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.
“Same thing with the pedigree,” Pletcher said. “We needed her to come here, we needed her to train well, we needed her to give us every indication that she was ready to run, which she has.
“We feel like the mile and a half suits her, she’s very well-bred for it and has the right kind of disposition in terms of she’ll relax in the course of the race. So now it’s just a matter of if she can make that move forward to compete with some of the best males.’
There are longer dirt races restricted to fillies in June, including the Grade I Acorn on the Belmont card, but Pletcher said the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes distance carried much weight in the planning.
Like everyone in the field, Nest and jockey Jose Ortiz will have to deal with what promises to be a slow early pace, but if she gets beat, it likely won’t be because the mile and a half was out of her scope.
There isn’t much history on her side, but a huge chapter of it came right out of her barn, in 2007.
It’s a story that ought to be good enough to get Rags to Riches into the National Racing Hall of Fame, Pletcher said.
“Yeeeah, I don’t quite get that one,” he said. “To me, when you think of the Hall of Fame, you think of a historical accomplishment, and it doesn’t get much more historical than that.
“From what I’ve heard, the people that are not voting for her is because she didn’t have a long enough campaign, so it’ll be interesting to see what those people do with Justify.”
Justify, who hasn’t yet been eligible for Hall of Fame nomination, won the Triple Crown in 2018 but raced just six times, all as a 3-year-old, before being retired to stud.
Rags to Riches won five of seven career starts, one of which wowed everyone in attendance at Belmont in 2007.
That included her trainer, who keeps things pretty firmly buttoned down, but simply couldn’t help himself that day and punched the sky.
“That was a combination of a lot of things, but sheer excitement was one thing,” Pletcher said.