06/05/2007 12:00AM

Rags to Riches vs. the boys

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Rags to Riches, winner of 4 of 5 lifetime starts against female competition, will take on Preakness winner Curlin and Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The Belmont Stakes has gone from rags to riches.

That might be just a wee bit of hyperbole, being as Preakness Stakes winner Curlin and Triple Crown stalwart Hard Spun were already in the field. But the decision on Tuesday by trainer Todd Pletcher to race the nation's unquestioned leading 3-year-old filly, Rags to Riches, against the boys in the 139th Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park made the final leg of the Triple Crown far more interesting than one known in large part for missing Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.

Her inclusion also set off a chain reaction of events regarding horses and, in particular, jockeys. John Velazquez wound up on Rags to Riches by jettisoning Slew's Tizzy, but not before a late-hour bid by Ron Anderson, the jockey agent for Garrett Gomez, to get off of Hard Spun and back on Rags to Riches, whom Gomez rode to victory in the Kentucky Oaks.

One potential fringe players in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, Time Squared, was pulled from the race when trainer Patrick Biancone learned another top horse had been added to the field.

But the expected small field for the $1 million race did embolden trainer Nick Zito on Tuesday to put C P West in the Belmont.

Final entries were due and post positions were to be drawn on Wednesday. A field of seven was expected to be entered: C P West (Edgar Prado the rider), Curlin (Robby Albarado), Hard Spun (Gomez), Imawildandcrazyguy (Mark Guidry), Rags to Riches (Velazquez), Slew's Tizzy (Rafael Bejarano), and Tiago (Mike Smith). Digger is still possible, with a final decision as to his status expected to have been made Wednesday morning.

Pletcher said he made the decision to run Rags to Riches after talking to Michael Tabor, who owns Rags to Riches along with Derrick Smith. Pletcher said the colt Circular Quay, who also had been under consideration for the Belmont, would instead be "freshened up a little bit."

"We discussed the pros and cons, and Mr. Tabor said he would be happy with either decision, but he seemed excited when I made the decision that she was going to run," Pletcher said Tuesday morning at his Belmont Park barn. "There's a number of reasons. First and foremost, the filly's doing very well at the moment. Second, she's bred for it. I'll probably never have a horse as well bred for it.

"The spacing is very good, the timing from her last race to now and then going forward to races like the Coaching Club American Oaks if we decide that's where we're going to go next. And she needs to run. She's ready to run. Three weeks would be a long time to wait for the Mother Goose."

Rags to Riches is by A.P. Indy, the 1992 Belmont Stakes winner, and is a half-sister to Jazil, last year's Belmont winner. She will be coming into the Belmont off a five-week layoff, having scored her fourth straight win on May 4 in the Kentucky Oaks. The Grade 1, $300,000 CCA Oaks at 1o1/4 miles is July 21. The Grade 1, $250,000 Mother Goose - where Rags to Riches would have gone next if she skipped the Belmont - is June 30.

Rags to Riches will be the 22nd filly to run in the Belmont. Two have won, but it's been awhile since it was done by Ruthless in 1867 and Tanya in 1905. The last to make the attempt was Silverbulletday, who finished seventh in 1999.

Pletcher had said two weeks ago that he would not run Rags to Riches in the Belmont if Curlin, Hard Spun, and Street Sense were all in the race. A little more than a week ago, when none of those three had been ruled out, Gomez - who has been aboard Rags to Riches for all four of her races this year, all victories - took the call on Hard Spun, replacing Mario Pino.

When Street Sense dropped out last week, Pletcher became more interested in running. When Pletcher decided on Tuesday to run, he asked Anderson if Gomez could get out of his commitment to Hard Spun and ride Rags to Riches.

Anderson asked Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun, but the answer was a very firm no.

"I've got a commitment, and they made it a week or 10 days ago," Jones said. "I expect them to honor it, and I intend to hold them to it. I'm not going to start looking for a rider now."

"The guy didn't want to let me off the horse," Anderson said. "We were trying to be loyal to Todd, because he's been nice to us, and the filly has been nice to us. But I don't blame the guy for drawing a line in the sand. When we had to make a decision, the filly was very iffy to run."

With Gomez out of the mix, Pletcher reached out to Velazquez, who is represented by former riding great Angel Cordero Jr. They had taken a call with Slew's Tizzy last week, but were able to get out of that commitment with the approval of trainer Greg Fox.

"Rags to Riches coming into the race put me in a vulnerable position with John Velazquez," Fox said. "I told him they could get out. If a rider doesn't want to ride my horse, I don't want to make him."

Fox secured Rafael Bejarano to ride Slew's Tizzy.

Zito added C P West to the mix after watching him train at Saratoga for the two-plus weeks since his fourth-place finish in the Preakness. He finished just 1 1/2 lengths behind Hard Spun, who was third in the Preakness.

"As time went on, with no Street Sense and a very small field, it made sense," Zito said. "He ran with these horses, and he showed he belonged. I heard the band, and the next thing I was marching."

C P West was scheduled to be sent by van from Saratoga to Belmont on Wednesday.

Curlin and Slew's Tizzy arrived Tuesday after a flight from Kentucky.

Hard Spun went back to the track at Belmont on Tuesday after merely walking the shed row on Monday, the day following his final work for the race. "The track dried out nice," said Jones, who was on Hard Spun for his routine gallop.

- additional reporting by David Grening