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Rags to Riches adds instant pizzazz
ELMONT, N.Y. - Todd Pletcher's decision to run the filly Rags to Riches certainly created a much-needed buzz to this year's Belmont Stakes. It will also create myriad opinions whether she is good enough to beat the boys, including Preakness winner Curlin and Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun.
"A reason you would run a filly in here is because you know you have a good horse and you feel the competition might be vulnerable, that plays into it," said Bob Baffert, who saddled the filly Silverbulletday in the 1999 Belmont against Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic. "The temptation of winning a classic is huge, and the Belmont trophy is really nice."
In the 138 runnings of the Belmont, only 21 fillies have competed. Only two fillies have won the race - Ruthless in 1867 and Tanya in 1905. Since 1980, four fillies have run in the Belmont, including Kentucky Derby winners Genuine Risk (second in 1980) and Winning Colors (sixth in 1988), as well as My Flag (third in 1996) and Silverbulletday (seventh in 1999).
Both Shug McGaughey, the trainer of My Flag, and Baffert agreed that the presence of Rags to Riches spices up the race.
"They got nothing to lose," said McGaughey, whose filly finished five lengths behind the 1996 winner, Editor's Note. "She's won three Grade 1 stakes, including the Santa Anita Oaks and Kentucky Oaks. They must feel she's doing good."
"It's a tall order," said Baffert, whose filly finished seventh behind the winning Lemon Drop Kid. "At least it makes the race interesting, it makes it worth watching. I was going to watch the match race [between a horse and a human] at River Downs. Now that the filly's running, I'm going to watch the Belmont."
McGaughey sees some similarities between My Flag and Rags to Riches. For one, both have impeccable breeding. My Flag is a daughter of Belmont winner Easy Goer out of the undefeated champion mare Personal Ensign. Rags to Riches is by Belmont winner A.P. Indy and is a half-sister to last year's Belmont winner, Jazil.
"They're a lot the same because they'll naturally run that far," McGaughey said. "That was my thinking: she'll run that far, she'll get the distance. If you were trying to make one get the distance I think it would be very difficult."
Baffert thinks Silverbulletday could have gotten the distance if she would have been able to get loose on the lead. But she was pressed by Charismatic through fractions of 23.79 seconds, 47.60, and 1:12.08.
"I thought I'd be fresh taking on tired horses," Baffert said. "If I could have gotten a Commendable pace I would have been fine."
Baffert was referring to the 2000 Belmont in which Commendable raced just off Hugh Hefner through six furlongs in 1:14.39 and a mile in 1:39.11 before winning the Belmont in a slow 2:31.19.
Time Squared drops out
The presence of Rags to Riches in the Belmont prompted the connections of Time Squared to drop out of the race and gave owner Lawrence Roman reason to reconsider running his longshot Digger.
Patrick Biancone, the trainer of Time Squared, said the filly added a third top-flight contender to the field along with Curlin and Hard Spun
"Two horses to beat you have a shot, with three it's too tough," he said.
Biancone said Time Squared, a New York-bred son of Fusaichi Pegasus, would be pointed to the $750,000 Colonial Turf Cup at Colonial Downs on June 16.
Meanwhile, Roman lauded Pletcher for running his filly, and said he would make a decision Wednesday morning whether to run the seemingly overmatched Digger.
Roman planned to have met with his trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., Wednesday morning.
"I want to get his perspective on it," Roman said. "If I don't think I can finish in the top three I'm not going to race him."
Roman decided to point Digger to the Belmont only after the connections of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense had opted not to run. Digger, beaten in a Charles Town allowance race last out, would be the longest shot in the Belmont field. He worked four furlongs in 50.06 seconds on Tuesday at Aqueduct.
Jones mulls idea of Hard Spun at 4
Though he knows he won't get the chance to prove it, trainer Larry Jones believes Hard Spun would make an excellent 4-year-old. The breeding rights to Hard Spun, the Kentucky Derby runner-up and Preakness third-place finisher, were sold to Darley Stable over the weekend with the stipulation the horse is retired at year's end.
Hard Spun, owned by Rick Porter, is a May 10 foal, meaning he wasn't even truly a 3-year-old when he ran in the Kentucky Derby. Hard Spun figures to mature both physically and mentally, and Jones said the colt is already an impressive physical specimen.
"This horse has been as sound as sound could get," Jones said. "There's no reason to think he couldn't be a great 4-year-old. That's what allowed him to come through this Triple Crown deal; he's just had no issues. I put a lot of credit to Porter for not making me push him hard early in his career."
Jones said it will be tough to say goodbye to Hard Spun at year's end.
"But hopefully we'll make the best of it," he said. "I was glad he was in [the barn] some of the time. Looking forward, hopefully Mr. Porter has a couple of mares he wants to breed to him. Finding another one just like him? It would be hard for me to be that lucky."
Pletcher shuffles the deck
Cotton Blossom, who was a troubled ninth behind stablemate Rags to Riches in the Kentucky Oaks, will be the lone representative for Pletcher in the Grade 1, $250,000 Acorn Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on Saturday at Belmont Park.
Pletcher had been considering running both Cotton Blossom and Octave, the Oaks runner-up, in the one-mile Acorn. But when he decided on Tuesday to put Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes, he elected to keep Octave out of the Acorn in favor of running her in the Grade 1, $250,000 Mother Goose Stakes on June 30. That 1 1/8-mile race had been under consideration for Rags to Riches.
"Cotton Blossom will be our only one in the Acorn," Pletcher said at his Belmont barn. "Octave will go to the Mother Goose. I'm not sure what this does to Panty Raid yet."
Panty Raid, who won the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes in her last start, is under consideration for the Mother Goose.
Cotton Blossom, a mammoth daughter of Broken Vow, won the Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay earlier this year and was second in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn. Last year, she won the Schuylerville Stakes at Saratoga and was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. This will be her first race at Belmont Park.
Utopia to miss Birdstone, too
Utopia, the winner of the Grade 3 Westchester Handicap here on opening day, will have to miss his second straight stakes race after shedding the frog on each of his front feet following a fast workout on Sunday.
Utopia, who missed the Metropolitan Handicap due to a leg infection, was pointing to Saturday's $100,000 Birdstone Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The frog is the fleshy sole on the bottom of the foot that acts like a shock absorber.
Utopia, a 7-year-old son of Forty Niner who won the Westchester off a 14-month layoff, breezed five furlongs in 59.82 seconds on Sunday, the fastest of 18 at the distance.
"They heal up fine, he'll just miss some time," said Rick Mettee, who oversees Godolphin Racing's New York string. "For a 7-year-old that's doing so well it's just been frustrating. He showed me in that work he's still got some good races in him."
Godolphin will be represented on the undercard by Council Member, a 5-year-old son of Seattle Slew who will run in the Grade 2, $200,000 True North Handicap. Council Member won a third-level allowance race on May 10.
- additional reporting by Jay Privman