09/13/2007 12:00AM

Next date with boys can wait

EmailNEW YORK - Rags to Riches will be making her first start since her historic Belmont Stakes victory when she returns in Saturday's Gazelle at Belmont, where a 14-week layoff shouldn't stop her from galloping at short odds against the quartet of Lear's Princess, Dorm Fever, Tough Tiz's Sis, and Le Chateau. If she wins, however, the drumbeat will begin: Well-meaning but misguided voices will insist that she make her next start against males in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

As brilliant a plan as it was to run her in the Belmont, where she became the first filly in 102 years to win the race, running her in the Classic would be a terrible idea. She instead should run in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, the proper year-end goal for a 3-year-old filly, a worthy $2 million race in its own right, and one where a victory could still possibly win her a Horse of the Year title on top of the divisional championship she has already locked up.

She's not going to win that title if either Lawyer Ron or Street Sense wins the Classic, but she's iffy at best to beat either of them, and it's neither necessary nor reasonable to ask her to try. It's one thing to beat a thin lineup of 3-year-old males in June when you're exceptionally well-bred to excel at 1 1/2 miles, and quite another for a 3-year-old filly to beat the world's best older males in the fall.

The loudest cries for her to run in the Classic will come from the general sporting press, which doesn't understand the difference and will think that if she beat the boys once, she can and should do it again. It's odds-on that some nitwit of a football writer will pen a column in the weeks ahead that Rags to Riches' handlers owe it to racing to run her in the Classic and that they're chickens if they don't.

Such a demand would be foolish and unprecedented. No one seriously suggested that Winning Colors needed to validate her Kentucky Derby victory by running against males in the 1988 Classic instead of having her memorable showdown with Personal Ensign in that year's Distaff. And at the risk of committing sacrilege against those two great champions, if they had run in the Classic that year, they probably would have been no better than part of a six-way photo for third - along with Waquoit, Forty Niner, Cryptoclearance, and Personal Flag - while finishing well behind Alysheba and Seeking the Gold.

Only three females have ever run in the Classic: Both Triptych, a 4-year-old who was sixth in 1986, and the 3-year-old Jolypha, who was third in 1992, ran to satisfy their owners' curiousity about how they would fare on dirt and because there was no Filly and Mare Turf race at the time. Azeri ran fifth to Ghostzapper in 2004, but she was a 6-year-old making her final career start and had already won a Distaff and 16 other races.

Rags to Riches will be making just her seventh career start in the Gazelle. Another run against males can wait until next year, when she will be older, more seasoned, possibly even better, and perhaps in need of new worlds to conquer.

A lot of fans have been skeptical that she would race again at all after she missed some training due to fevers that knocked her out of the Alabama and Ruffian. While such paranoia is understandable in the current climate of premature retirements and exuberant bloodstock valuations, there is absolutely no pressure to protect her reputation and whisk her off to stud. While a hot new stallion can generate millions in stud fees by being retired a year early, a filly can produce just one foal, and owner Michael Tabor is more likely to race rather than sell whatever Rags to Riches produces. From that perspective, an outstanding filly is as good for the game and the fans as an outstanding gelding: The opportunity is a sporting rather than a financial one, to win races and make even more racing history.

"If I don't mess her up, there's a decent chance there's no filly that's ever going to beat her," trainer Todd Pletcher said after the Belmont. "You get one this good, you want to protect them, you want them never to get beaten."

Rags to Riches lost her debut, but if she's the same filly we saw 14 weeks ago, she shouldn't be in much jeopardy of losing again until perhaps her final career start - in the 2008, not 2007, Breeders' Cup Classic. Between now and then, there's plenty of history to be made against fillies, starting with this year's Distaff.