06/07/2007 12:00AM

Rags to Riches could make history


ELMONT, N.Y. - In 1905, Albert Einstein introduced his theory of relativity, Las Vegas was founded, and Wilbur Wright set a world record by flying an airplane 24 miles in 39 minutes.

Oh yeah, and a filly named Tanya won the Belmont Stakes.

In the 102 years since then, Einstein has become a synonym for genius, Las Vegas has turned into the gambling mecca of the universe, and the Concorde made it possible to travel the 3,500 miles between New York and London in 3 1/2 hours.

But no filly has won the Belmont Stakes.

On Saturday, Rags to Riches will attempt to become just the third filly to win the Belmont. She is the 22nd filly to run in the race, just the 10th since 1905.

The historical significance is not lost on Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Rags to Riches.

"There's two sides to that," said Pletcher, who has won the Eclipse Award as North America's top trainer the last three years, but hasn't won a Triple Crown race with

28 starters. "One makes you wonder if running is the right thing because it's been very difficult to do. On the other side, that's what makes it kind of an interesting challenge. If she does do it, she's doing something extra special."

Pletcher has felt that Rags to Riches was something special from the beginning. Apparently so did others, as the filly, a daughter of A.P. Indy out of the dam Better Than Honour, sold for $1.9 million at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling auction. Bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne purchased her for clients Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith.

According to Pletcher, Rags to Riches came to him in April 2006, and she made it to the races on June 10. She broke slowly in a

5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs, and made a seven-wide bid to finish fourth. She emerged from the race with shin splints and was given the remainder of the year off.

Rags to Riches wintered in Southern California, where she was able to train over the synthetic surface at Hollywood Park. She raced, however, over the conventional dirt surface at Santa Anita, winning a seven-furlong maiden race by six lengths on Jan. 7 before capturing the Grade 1 Las Virgenes by three-quarters of a length on Feb. 10.

Belying the margin of victory that day was the manner in which Rags to Riches won the Las Virgenes. Breaking from an outside post, Rags to Riches was forced to run extremely wide virtually every step around the track. Her jockey, Garrett Gomez, said that when he attempted to clear the field, others went with him. When he attempted to take back, his opponents did the same.

"People don't understand what was asked of her that day," Gomez said. "I rode her like a car. Everything I had in my mind to do, there was an obstacle; sometimes it works out like that. I asked her for three or four different kinds of movements throughout the race and she was there for me."

In her next start, Rags to Riches won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks by 5 1/2 lengths, the easiest race of her brief career.

At that point, the owners and Pletcher began toying with the idea of taking on colts in the Santa Anita Derby with the possibility of running in the Kentucky Derby. But since Tabor already owned part of Kentucky Derby contenders Circular Quay and Scat Daddy, the plan was quickly scrapped, and the focus became the Kentucky Oaks.

"We all agreed winning the Oaks would be a great thing, so let's focus on that," Pletcher said.

The Oaks was run over a muddy Churchill Downs surface, and Rags to Riches was behind horses taking dirt in her face for the first time. At first, Gomez said, she resented it. But as the race developed, Rags to Riches settled, made a huge move between horses, took control turning for home, and drew off to win by 4 1/4 lengths.

"She didn't like [the dirt] at first, and the further we went along the more she came to accept the situation," Gomez said. "Finally, at the five-sixteenths pole, when I was able to move her out, she took a deep breath and she jumped up underneath me. I said, 'Wow, that's not what I was expecting.' When you have a horse that fights her way through the dirt and feels a little uncomfortable, they usually don't finish the way you want them to finish. She went beyond my expectations."

In the post-Oaks press conference, Pletcher and Tabor both mentioned the possibility of taking on colts at some point in the year. Since Rags to Riches is a daughter of a Belmont winner and is a half-sister to last year's Belmont winner, Jazil, the Belmont seemed like a reasonable possibility.

However, Pletcher did not want to run if it meant facing Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Preakness winner Curlin, and Derby runner-up and Preakness third-place finisher Hard Spun. When Street Sense defected and Pletcher was happy with the filly's workout last Sunday, he decided to run. She will get a five-pound weight break from the colts in the Belmont.

"I think with her pedigree, the spacing and the timing, trying her in this race makes more sense than in a 20-horse field," Pletcher said. "Hopefully, the five pounds maybe at the distance starts to make a little bit of a difference. The distance is the key."

Because Pletcher had been wavering on his decision, Gomez opted to take the mount on Hard Spun. When he couldn't get off Hard Spun to ride Rags to Riches, Pletcher was able to get John Velazquez. Gomez, who figures to be in front of Rags to Riches early on Hard Spun, will expect her to make a run at him at some point.

"You really have to worry about her," Gomez said. "Todd's not running her because she doesn't have a chance. A mile and a half should be right up her wheelhouse."

Leroy Jolley, the trainer of 1980 Belmont runner-up Genuine Risk, believes Rags to Riches is a very nice filly. However, he notes that Curlin and Hard Spun are far superior to anything she has run against to date.

"You got two horses certainly with near Triple Crown credentials," Jolley said. "For a filly to step up and beat those two horses, she's certainly going to have to be an exceptional filly. Maybe she is, I don't know."

If she is, Rags to Riches could make history. Then, Pletcher will look like Einstein, and those who bet on her will be flying high.