09/17/2007 12:00AM

Bitter end to Rags's sweet season

EmailNEW YORK - It certainly did seem odd the way Rags to Riches had her head cocked sharply to the right through the stretch run of her comeback in Saturday's Gazelle Handicap at Belmont Park.

In fact, it was so odd that it encouraged me on Saturday evening to go back and review the stretch run of Rags to Riches's historic Belmont Stakes win to see if she had her head cocked to the right then, too, and whether it was overlooked in the excitement of the moment. She didn't. Or at least she didn't have her head cocked nearly to the extent or length of time that she did on Saturday.

Sometimes horses will do something like this out of inexperience, or habit, or boredom. But since Rags to Riches didn't look sideways in the Belmont, none of these figured to be causes in this instance. Instead, fatigue was a prime suspect. After all, Rags to Riches was making her first start in 14 drama-filled weeks marked by illness, missed and aborted workouts, and missed starts. It was either fatigue, or Rags to Riches was trying to tell us something.

It turns out she was. Rags to Riches was feeling her right leg, and a hairline fracture of the pastern that has now brought a close to a bittersweet championship season.

The Eclipse Award won't be handed out until January. But many people, this corner included, feel that Rags to Riches has already made the 3-year-old filly championship a mere formality. In any other year, Lear's Princess, who edged Rags to Riches in the Gazelle, would be a prime candidate for champion 3-year-old filly with a win over older opponents in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. So would Alabama winner Lady Joanne or Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks winner Octave. But Rags to Riches made sure this wasn't any other year when she became the first female in more than a century to win the last, oldest, and longest leg of the Triple Crown. It really didn't matter what Rags to Riches was able to accomplish after the Belmont. She clinched the championship. Period. No collection of conventional stakes victories can overtake that singular achievement.

The Belmont Stakes was a huge part of the "sweet" this year for Rags to Riches. So was her overwhelming victory in the Kentucky Oaks. The "bitter" was the illness that caused her to miss a start in the CCA Oaks - which eliminated the possibility of another meeting between her and colts in the Travers - and miss another potential start in the Alabama. The bitter, of course, includes this injury, which prevents her from showing her stuff in the Breeders' Cup and denies us the pleasure of watching her. Stretching back out to two turns, around which she has never been beaten, in her second start after a layoff, Rags to Riches very likely would have put on quite a show at Monmouth.

The bitter for Rags to Riches, however, does not include her loss in the Gazelle. Sure, many people were disappointed that she was unable to hold off Lear's Princess in the late stages. But Lear's Princess is certainly no stiff. And in view of all that Rags to Riches had to deal with in the three-plus months between her Belmont and Gazelle, and considering that the primary role of the Gazelle was to prep her for the Breeders' Cup, expectations for Rags to Riches on Saturday seemed unrealistically high.

It was not as if all Rags to Riches had to do to win the Gazelle in a blowout and produce one of those performances that make you go "wow" was to throw her Belmont Stakes chart out on the track. Just consider for a moment how the other winners from this year's Triple Crown have fared thereafter. After he was nailed by Curlin in the Preakness, Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense did manage to win the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga. But with no intention to take anything away from that significant stakes double, the fact is that Street Sense's Jim Dandy and Travers were not especially impressive visually, against the clock, or for the level of horse he defeated. Neither of Street Sense's Saratoga scores was of the same quality as his Derby victory. As for Curlin, after losing the stretch battle in the Belmont to Rags to Riches, he followed with the worst race of his career when he finished a flat third in the Haskell Invitational.

Before Saturday, there was already some indication that this year's Triple Crown was more taxing on its main players than other recent Triple Crowns have been, perhaps because the Preakness and Belmont were so bitterly fought. And while Street Sense and Curlin are at least still mobile, Rags to Riches's season-ending injury adds more weight to the belief that this year's Triple Crown extracted an inordinate toll.