03/10/2007 12:00AM

Rags to Riches may be special

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Rags to Riches was able to win the Las Virgenes despite a five-wide trip.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Is it too soon to label Rags to Riches the best 3-year-old filly in the country? The answer comes Sunday in the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks, where Rags to Riches tries for a better trip than her last-start nightmare in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes.

Rags to Riches won the one-mile race despite racing five wide throughout.

"You don't see too many horses get trips like she did in the Las Virgenes," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "It was unreal she was able to overcome that trip. It doesn't happen very often."

And when it does, legends are born. Sunday at Santa Anita, Rags to Riches seeks another improbable feat in the 1 1/16-mile Oaks - winning consecutive stakes on the merry-go-round that is the Southern California 3-year-old filly division.

Twelve different fillies have won the circuit's 12 unrestricted dirt stakes since last spring, an angle that supports Oaks starter Silver Swallow. Winner of a fast maiden race last out, Silver Swallow faces Rags to Riches, Grade 1 winner Cash Included, Grade 3 winner Baroness Thatcher, and ungraded stakes winner Runway Rosie. Slew o' Platinum and Quickandquietqueen are the longshots in the seven-horse field.

The Oaks revolves around Rags to Riches, an A.P. Indy filly purchased as a yearling for $1.9 million by Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor. She debuted for Pletcher last June 10 at Churchill Downs, finishing fourth in a 5 1/2-furlong race that was too short for her.

Pletcher gave her the rest of the year off, and sent her to California in fall to train on the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park. Rags to Riches returned Jan. 7 with a smashing six-length sprint win at Santa Anita, and at seven furlongs, she was just getting warmed up.

"With her pedigree, they won't write races too far," Pletcher said. "She's come a long way in a short period of time."

That's exactly what she did in the Las Virgenes. Stretching out, facing winners for the first time, and wide throughout, she wore down pacesetter Baroness Thatcher in deep stretch.

Rags to Riches earned a 93 Beyer Speed Figure in the Las Virgenes, run in a slow 1:37.85. Thoro-Graph speed figures, which account for factors such as ground loss, wind and weight, awarded Rags to Riches a 1 1/2 while Baroness Thatcher earned a 5o1/2 (lower is faster on the Thoro-Graph scale). Garrett Gomez will ride Rags to Riches.

Improving front-runner Baroness Thatcher will try to steal the Oaks.

"The other day, [Rags to Riches] was better than us," trainer Patrick Biancone admitted. "But [Baroness Thatcher] seems to improve from race to race; we're very happy."

They should be. Owned by Zayat Stables, Baroness Thatcher has won 2 of 6 and ran better in the Las Virgenes than she did winning the Santa Ysabel. Hounded through a solid pace by sprinter Swiss Diva, Baroness Thatcher shook away, and finished two lengths clear of third. Without Swiss Diva in the Oaks field, Baroness Thatcher could set a slower pace.

Cash Included finished fourth in the Las Virgenes, and trainer Craig Dollase expects her to improve second start back.

"She'd been off a couple months, and bounced out of the race really well," he said.

The Las Virgenes was the first start for Cash Included since she ran fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, and she needed the start.

The question with Cash Included is whether her Grade 1 Oak Leaf win last fall was legitimate, or merely the product of a speed-favoring track and a vulnerable favorite, Point Ashley.

Runway Rosie will try to post a come-from-behind upset for trainer David Hofmans, who said: "What she has to do is stay out of trouble. She's always in the wrong place - inside when she should be outside and getting slowed up a little bit."

Runway Rosie has a career-best Beyer Figure of 90, and Hofmans acknowledged that the 2-for-7 filly "has to step up her game a little bit.

"I think later this year, she'll develop into a better horse," he said. "She's still immature, but she's coming."

Silver Swallow enters as the high-figure horse in the field. She won a seven-furlong maiden sprint on Feb. 18 with a 96 Beyer.

"She's had three works [since] and three real good races," trainer Bruce Headley said. "But it's still a tough step."