06/10/2007 11:00PM

'Rags' wasn't day's only story

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There was more than one horse race run last Saturday. No, really, there was.

From Chippewa to Yavapai, from Canterbury Downs to the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show (celebrating its 100th anniversary, by the way), bets were taken, gates blasted open, and jocks went belly down in pursuit of whatever purse there was dangling from the wire.

Still, it will be Saturday's 11th at Belmont that forever burns deepest in the collective memory. This is to be expected when singular events occur. In the 102 years since Meddler's daughter Tanya helped christen a spanking new Belmont Park by beating five colts and a filly in the 39th running of the Belmont Stakes, there has been only one Joe DiMaggio, only one Eleanor Roosevelt, only one Bob Dylan, and now, only one Rags to Riches.

Those of us lucky enough to have witnessed her coming of age this winter in California can delight in the Santa Anita memories of Rags to Riches winning for the first time on a peaceful Sunday afternoon in early January, of Rags to Riches touring the outside rail to win the Las Virgenes in her stakes debut, and of Rags to Riches dismissing some very nice fillies in the Santa Anita Oaks, as if they boarded the wrong plane. High marks go to Pletcher assistant and Southern California homeboy Michael "Whitey" McCarthy and his crew for keeping the filly sound and happy all winter long, setting the stage for history to be made.

Like all graceful heroines, Rags to Riches will accept the accolades with dignity and style, deferring to her handlers and demanding only that the feed tub be full at the appointed time. Brimming with noblesse oblige - not to mention the DNA of Seattle Slew, Secretariat, and Northern Dancer - she knows when to step back and allow others to take their bows.

Hollywood Park's Saturday card provided stimulating bookends to the Belmont Stakes, beginning with the nine-furlong Honeymoon Stakes, a grass race for 3-year-old fillies who were not quite ready for the Belmont Stakes. That streak of brown ripping past the leaders late in the race was Valbenny, an Irish lass about half the size of Rags to Riches, except for around the heart.

With her 1 3/4-length victory, geared down, Valbenny was doing a pretty good imitation of her sire, Val Royal, winner of the 2001 Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park. Not only did Valbenny jump to the head of the domestic contingent pointing for the $750,000 American Oaks, she also did her part to help her owners and trainer Paddy Gallagher deal with the fatal injury of stable stalwart Three Degrees in the Gamely Handicap, over the same course and distance, on May 28. Three Degrees won the Honeymoon in 2005.

The rafters were still rocking from the Hollywood crowd reaction to the televised Belmont when Lava Man came over for his return to competition and a defense of his title in the $300,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial, at 1 1/4 miles on the grass.

Questions filled the air regarding Lava Man's condition, especially in the wake of his disastrous journey to the Middle East, where he was badly drubbed in the March 31 Dubai Duty Free. Another road trip, another humiliation sounds par for the Lava Man course, but Dubai was an especially puzzling concern for Leandro Mora, who was trainer Doug O'Neill's man on the scene.

"Other times, there were reasons he didn't run well when he traveled," Mora said Saturday, as he waited for Lava Man to enter the saddling paddock. "This time, I still don't know. Everything seemed fine. The way he ate, the way he trained, the way he looked. If I had to guess, the only thing left is to say that he was homesick."

Don't laugh. Mora is an experienced, intuitive horseman who looks at his athletes from all angles and always gives them the benefit of the doubt. If he thinks a class act like Lava Man frets away vital desire when removed from his familiar domain, there might be something to it. More to the point, however, was the fact that Mora feared Lava Man was not quite physically ready to handle the Whittingham challenge.

"When he got back from Dubai, he walked for two weeks," Mora noted. "After that, to my mind, he looked like he got fit too fast. A false fit. Good horses will do that. They will look great and act great, but they can fool you."

As it turned out, Lava Man was fit enough to handle everything but the final sixteenth of a mile, surrendering reluctantly to After Market, ridden by Alex Solis. Once the verdict was apparent, Corey Nakatani wisely shut down Lava Man while easily saving second, giving the appearance that he surrendered without a fight.

"Are you kidding me!" Solis said. "I was chasing Lava Man hard for three-eighths of a mile."

A son of Storm Cat and Tranquility Lake, bred by owners Pam and Marty Wygod and trained by John Shirreffs, After Market was a stakes winner last summer for Bill Mott before heading West, where he won the Inglewood Handicap in his most recent start. His Whittingham victory now puts him on the trail of races like the Arlington Million, and he might even be the center of attention - as long as that red filly doesn't show up.