06/05/2017 3:26PM

Hovdey: The California roots of Rags to Riches

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rags to Riches (outside) raced only once more after winning the 2007 Belmont Stakes.

For those who prefer their Thoroughbred racing spiced with gender-bending fillies and mares, the first dozen years of the 21st century were a giddy time to be alive.

Pick a hemisphere. There was something for everyone. Superstars Sunline, Makybe Diva, and Black Caviar emerged from Down Under. Buena Vista and Gentildonna dominated males in Japan. Ouija Board ranged far and wide from her British home, confounding males on a global scale. Zarkava and Treve set new standards for fillies in France, while Azeri, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Havre de Grace all ascended to U.S. Horse of the Year.

Then there was Rags to Riches, summoning Joan of Arc by way of James Dean, whose time on the stage was brief but her impact everlasting.

A chestnut daughter of A.P. Indy with a wide blaze, the slyly named Rags to Riches was born to privilege, raised in luxury, and sold at a $1.9 million premium to the House of Coolmore, as represented by Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith. Rooting for such a filly to succeed seemed on a par with hoping the next line of Ferraris would be fast, or that Bank of America might have a good year. If ever a model was built not to fail.

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Horse racing, though, has proven to be a great leveler. You can set a perfect table, then something comes along to spoil the meal. Rags to Riches boasted a family that put the Social Register to shame. She was handled by the most successful stable in the history of New York racing. When the money was down, her people turned to jockeys who rose consistently to those occasions.

She did not disappoint. Despite a career that had only five good months and seven races in all, Rags to Riches hijacked the conversation with five perfect races, climaxed by a narrow victory in the 139th running of the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 2007.

“I think she was destined to win the Belmont,” said Michael McCarthy, assistant to Todd Pletcher and the trainer of record for two of those five wins. “The race played to her strengths – stamina, attitude, everything.”

Rags to Riches not only was the first filly in 102 years to win the third jewel of the Triple Crown, she was beating Preakness winner Curlin – a future two-time Horse of the Year – with a stretch-long duel that left grown men limp. As Tabor and Smith led John Velazquez and Rags to Riches into the Belmont Park winner’s circle that day, it could not be denied that this was the kind of filly for whom the game was designed.

McCarthy, now running his own stable based in California, was in charge of Pletcher’s West Coast division in the winter of 2007. When Pletcher began to serve a long-delayed 45-day suspension at the start of the year, the California horses ran in McCarthy’s name, including Rags to Riches in a seven-furlong maiden race on the first Sunday of the new year. She won by six lengths.

“Somebody asked me the other day who my first winner was,” McCarthy said, still amused. “I told them Rags to Riches. It took some explaining.”

The stable trained on a newly installed synthetic surface at Hollywood Park but raced on dirt at Santa Anita. Rags to Riches made her stakes debut in the Feb. 10 Las Virgenes and spent the entire mile parked far outside. Still, she got up to win by three-quarters of a length under Garrett Gomez, whose posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame comes this summer in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“The first thing Garrett said to me after the race was that it took nothing out of her,” McCarthy said. “Every time he needed her, she answered.”

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Gomez rode Rags to Riches to comprehensive victories in the subsequent Santa Anita Oaks and Kentucky Oaks, after which she rejoined the main Pletcher stable at Belmont Park. Gomez had committed to ride Derby runner-up Hard Spun in the Belmont before Pletcher made the call to run the filly, just a week before the race.

Velazquez, who stepped in for the ride, was shocked when Rags to Riches stumbled at the break, but she recovered quickly. During the NBC post-race interview, the jockey went out of his way to praise his predecessor.

“Garrett told me she would give me 100 percent without spanking her, that she’s going to run as much as she can with just shaking her up,” Velazquez said. “I have to say thank you to him. It was unfortunate that he was committed to another horse, but I think this victory goes with him, too.”

Gomez was a couple of weeks shy of his 45th birthday when he died last December from a drug overdose.

“It’s very bittersweet,” McCarthy said. “I never think of Rags to Riches without thinking of Garrett and how much a part of her story he was.”

Rags to Riches raced only once more, finishing a close second in the Gazelle Stakes three months after the Belmont. She emerged with a fractured pastern and was officially retired early the following year.

“I watch her races often, especially the Belmont,” McCarthy said. “If that doesn’t get you excited about what we do, nothing will.

“There were a lot of people who deserve credit for her success,” McCarthy added. “In the end, though, it was all her. She was one of a kind.”