Triple Crown had winners, but no 'winner'

Posted: June 11, 2007

ELMONT, N.Y. - This Triple Crown had everything but a Triple Crown.

In just 5 weeks, there was the final turn explosion from nearly last to nearly first by Street Sense in the Kentucky Derby, the stretch run by Curlin to catch Street Sense at the wire in the Preakness and the incredible stretch duel Saturday between the brilliant filly Rags to Riches and Curlin in the Belmont Stakes.

In a Triple Crown season where just about every historical trend was rendered moot, it was only fitting that at the end of that 400-yard Belmont Park duel, it was a filly winning the Belmont for the first time in 102 years - by the exact same half-a-head margin that Curlin had beaten Street Sense in the Preakness.

How big was this? It even converted the stoic Todd Pletcher into some fan watching his final $2 resting on the nose of Rags to Riches. That really was Pletcher pumping his fist through the stretch and then hugging his wife Tracy so hard at the finish that her hat fell off.

"As a rule, we're probably the one everyone is rooting against," Pletcher said. "We were the underdog today. That was kind of sweet. The reception was kind of unbelievable. After we made the decision to run this filly, the reaction from the racing community was very enthusiastic. If nothing else, it was great for racing. Obviously, the end result, it was great for the filly."

And just as great for Pletcher, the trainer who holds all the records but was 0-for-28 in Triple Crown races. Last year, Pletcher set records for stakes wins (100), graded stakes wins (57) and earnings ($26.8 million). Pletcher had to win one of these and he knew it.

Pletcher emulates his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, in many ways. He went right to the D. Wayne book for this one. Back in the 1980s, Lukas was Pletcher, winning everything except the Derby, where he was 0-for-12. So he entered the filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Derby. She went wire-to-wire.

Pletcher is still 0-for-28 with males in the Triple Crown. But he is 1-for-1 with fillies. And this is some filly.

The ill-named Rags to Riches should actually be called Riches to Riches as she cost $1.9 million 2 years ago.

In defeat, Curlin really lost nothing but a horse race. The colt looked beaten several times in the stretch, but kept coming back. In those stretch duels, the horse on the outside wins the vast majority of the time. This result proved the rule, but it was one of those duels that you come to the race track to see - two horses going all out for as long as it took to get to the wire first.

"Curlin is a competitor, he's got a lot of fight in him," said his trainer, Steve Asmussen. "To the last jump, I thought he'd win and I thought he'd come back."

That Curlin, with such limited experience, was able to run two consecutive gut-wrenching races in the Triple Crown crucible is a testament to the colt's rare talent. That Rags to Riches was able to overcome a scary stumble at the break, be quite wide on the backstretch run and the far turn and win that duel for her fifth consecutive win (four in Grade I stakes) shows the depth of her ability.

The late summer races have real promise. Look for Curlin in races such as the Haskell at Monmouth Park and Travers at Saratoga, races Street Sense is pointing for. Pletcher has a choice - send Rags to Riches back with her sex in filly races (CCA Oaks, Alabama) and/or, at some point, go back after the boys again, possibly in the Travers.

As for Pennsylvania-bred Hard Spun, fourth in the Belmont, the colt's connections might want to consider a route to the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park on Labor Day. Hard Spun has proved to be a very nice horse, but a cut below the best of his generation.

New rider Garrett Gomez did Hard Spun no favors by wrangling the colt back off the pokey fractions when all the colt's best races are when he controls the pace. In the Preakness, Mario Pino went too soon with Hard Spun. Gomez overcompensated by refusing to let the colt run until all the closers had galloped into the race. By taking away Hard Spun's tactical edge, the rider gave the colt no chance.

"The pace was very slow," Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones, understated. "I thought that was our game plan leaving the paddock, to have these kinds of fractions, but be in front doing it. Apparently, we had a miscommunication somewhere."

Perhaps Gomez just wasn't into it. The regular rider for Rags to Riches, he tried to get out of his commitment on Hard Spun when Pletcher decided last Tuesday that the filly would run. Jones rightly held him to his commitment. John Velazquez had been scheduled to ride Slew's Tizzy, but got out of that commitment to ride the filly. Slew's Tizzy finished last and Velazquez, like Pletcher, got off the Triple Crown schneid: He was 0-for-20.

"Garrett Gomez told me she will give you 100 percent without asking," Velazquez said. "It was unfortunate for him that he turned over the horse, but this victory goes with him."

Rags to Riches ran the mile-and-a-half in 2:28.74, a very good time considering how slow the pace was. Her Beyer figure of 106 was solid, especially after the early fractions made it so difficult to get a really fast final time. The first 6 furlongs went in 1:15.32. The last 6 furlongs were 1:13.42. It was run very much like a European grass race where the horses stroll for a long time and then sprint to the finish.

By winning, Rags to Riches triggered a $417,207 Pick 6 payoff after a sequence in which no favorites won. Incredibly, the six losing favorites were 1-1, 7-10, 9-5, 3-5, 3-2 and Curlin at 11-10. The filly was the 3-1 second choice.

"This is a special feeling no matter when you do it," Pletcher said, "but when you do it with a filly for the first time in 102 years, it's really special and a real credit to how good she is."

Next spring, it will be 30 years since Affirmed was the last horse to win the Triple Crown. Even if another horse can finally win all three races, it will be very difficult to get races any better than those in the 2007 Triple Crown race, where three different horses won and gave us something to remember each time. *

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