08/13/2007 12:00AM

Rags to Riches: Great or merely good?

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Although Belmont stakes winner Rags to Riches is not going to run in the $600,000 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga this Saturday, trainer Todd Pletcher has two other high-class 3-year-old fillies ready for that historic 1 1/4-mile race - Octave and Panty Raid.

The most obvious reason Rags to Riches is not going to run in the 10-furlong Alabama traces to a week's worth of missed training in July. An exercise rider thought she felt something amiss early in a planned workout for a scheduled start in the Coaching Club American Oaks, a race won by Octave.

That was a month ago, and despite a clean bill of health from extensive medical tests, Rags to Riches has not had enough time to train for Pletcher to run her in the Alabama. So, now the target is the nine-furlong $300,000 Ruffian at Belmont Park on Sept. 8. That race will be her one and only prep for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff (or $5 million BC Classic) at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27.

Racing fans certainly hope that Rags to Riches will return in the Ruffian with the kind of smashing performance that twists Pletcher's arm to drop her name in the entry box for the Classic. Realistically, Pletcher has so many aces up his sleeve that he probably has crossed off the Classic as an option.

Pletcher has the 3-year-old Any Given Saturday and the 4-year-old Lawyer Ron moving relentlessly towards America's richest race. Moreover, that duo turned in two of the most dominating stakes victories of the year in the Haskell Invitational and Whitney Stakes, respectively. If able to duplicate such form on BC Day, both will present stiff competition for Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and Preakness winner Curlin.

Pletcher knows that Rags to Riches has the talent to compete against any horse in the world, yet he is telegraphing his intentions to shoot for a less imposing BC target by planning only one prep race. This after Rags to Riches has not raced and has trained sparingly since her hard-fought, dramatic Belmont Stakes triumph over Curlin on June 9.

Indeed, with Rags to Riches having already missed assignments in the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama, there is no guarantee that Pletcher will produce the same filly who won the Belmont, much less have her ready to compete in the Classic.

Frankly, the way Rags to Riches has been handled since the Belmont and what she will be permitted to accomplish through the rest of her career may well leave in doubt just how good, or great, she is.

After her strong Belmont performance , which capped off a memorable, high-quality Triple Crown series, Rags to Riches immediately invited comparisons to the best 3-year-old fillies of modern times. Indeed, this filly already has earned a special place in history as the first filly in 102 years to win the longest and most grueling Triple Crown race.

Some experienced observers went much further than that, however, instantly ranking Rags to Riches better than 1988 Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors, who completed her 3-year-old season by giving the undefeated 4-year-old Personal Ensign all she could handle in the BC Distaff at Churchill Downs.

Many also saw enough to wonder if Rags to Riches is better than 1980 Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk, who to her credit also finished second in a roughly run Preakness and was second again in the Belmont. A few even whispered that the Rags to Riches's Belmont victory was so good, she deserved to be mentioned in the same breath with the immortal Ruffian.

While we would hope to see more evidence, we may not find out if those comparisons are valid, or if Rags to Riches will develop into a 4-year-old that will be favorably compared to undefeated Personal Ensign and other historic older fillies and mares.

In contemporary racing. top trainers such as Pletcher have so many high-class stakes horses and so many rich stakes to cherry pick, it is difficult to imagine a campaign that will bring out the very best this strong-striding filly has to offer.

Earlier this year we saw Carl Nafzger, a patient, brilliant horseman who does not have an army of talented horses in his barn, skip over the $1 million Belmont Stakes with the fit and ready Street Sense.

At Arlington Park on Million Day, Nafzger reinforced his decision despite the lingering criticism: "Our targets after losing the Preakness had to be the Travers and Breeders' Cup Classic," he said. "Running in the Belmont might have set Street Sense back and forced us to skip the Travers, or set our timing off for the Breeders' Cup.

"In this day and age, we have to think backwards from the Kentucky Derby in the spring and the Breeders' Cup in the fall to know what races we should run in. You can't put horses through the kind of campaigns they had years ago. You sometimes have to skip races even when they're fit to compete. Realistically, nothing really compares to the first Saturday in May and the Breeders' Cup in the fall."

"Thinking backwards" now is the guiding principle for many of the nation's best trainers, and Pletcher certainly seems to recognize the imperative.

So how good or great is this filly that has stirred so much interest and will be so sparingly raced? While we will not see her in the Alabama, those who love to make such handicapping assessments have a right to believe that we have not yet seen her reach peak powers.

After her Kentucky Oaks and Belmont Stakes victories, it was no stretch to believe she would be a heavy betting favorite to win any dirt race at any classic distance over any other filly in the world. But should Pletcher's preparation continue at a stop-and-go pace, his star filly might even be a vulnerable proposition when and if she meets hard-hitting older fillies and mares in the Ruffian and on BC Day.

No horse should be viewed as invincible. Even Secretariat - the most outstanding racehorse of the modern era - lost five races: his trouble filled debut; the Champagne via a disqualification; the Wood Memorial in April and the Whitney Handicap in August when not 100 percent healthy; and the Woodward at 1 1/2 miles when a very good older horse named Prove Out set a slow pace and ran a giant race on a sloppy track.

Native Dancer and Man o' War lost once each when unlucky at the start. Citation, Count Fleet, and Seabiscuit lost more than once. Even though Personal Ensign survived her dramatic battle with Winning Colors to complete an unbeaten career, the outcome was in doubt to the final stride, a tribute to Personal Ensign's resolve more than her invincibility.

Most good horseplayers know that Rags to Riches has not yet grown into her hugely proportioned frame. She raced only once as a 2-year-old and has had only six races. Most who appreciate how horses mature and become stronger believe she has the potential to outperform her fantastic Belmont.

So even though Rags to Riches will not be in the Alabama and probably will not be fully cranked to compete in the BC Classic, the majority of horsemen, breeders, owners, track officials, racing reporters, and horseplayers still will want to see what this filly really can do.

We will want to see her compete against the best when she is at her best, otherwise the game will lose something important that cannot be replaced by other good horses running in her place.

Steve Davidowitz will be at Saratoga on Alabama Day, Aug. 18, to sign copies of his new book, "The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing."