Rags to Riches is racing's queen for a day.
The fabulous filly outdueled Preakness winner Curlin in a breathtaking stretch run and won the Belmont Stakes by a head Saturday, becoming the first of her sex in more than a century to take the final leg of the Triple Crown.
"My hat is off to Rags to Riches," said Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, who never gave up hope his chestnut colt would prevail in the dramatic final strides.
No one was happier with the victory than trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, who both ended long droughts in Triple Crown races: Pletcher was 0-for-28, Velazquez 0-for-20.
"It's a special feeling now matter when you do it, but when you do it with a filly for the first time in 102 years it's really special," Pletcher said.
Despite a slight stumble at the start, Rags to Riches turned the Belmont into a sensational showdown — a true battle of the sexes.
When the field of seven 3-year-olds turned for home, four horses were up front, Rags to Riches on the outside and Curlin sneaking in between two other rivals.
In an instant, it became a two-horse race — a quarter-mile to the finish of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the Triple Crown races.
Even the normally reserved Pletcher stood and cheered, along with the Belmont Park crowd of 46,870, as the horses battled saddlecloth to saddlecloth to the wire.
And when Rags to Riches won, it was a great day for ladies as racing had it's first filly to win a Triple Crown race since Winning Colors took the 1988 Kentucky Derby.
The defeat was a tough one for Curlin, who staged a remarkable rally to beat Street Sense by the same margin in the Preakness three weeks ago.
"The filly ran a great race on the right day," Asmussen said. "And now they're taking her picture."
Even without a Triple Crown on the line, and with Street Sense not in the field, this Belmont will be one to remember.
Rags to Riches became the third filly to capture the Belmont — Ruthless took the first running in 1867 and Tanya won in 1905. Only 22 fillies have tried the Belmont, with Rags to Riches the first since Silverbulletday finished seventh in 1999.
The Belmont is a race that Kentucky Derby winning fillies Winning Colors and Genuine Risk could not win.
Rags to Riches won in 2:28.74, well off Secretariat's track record of 2:24. But time didn't matter in this one.
"After we made the decision to run the filly, the reaction from the racing community was very enthusiastic," Pletcher said. "It was great for racing, great for the day. Obviously, it was great for the filly."
Rags to Riches was sent off as the 4-1 second choice and returned $10.60, $4.40 and $3.20. Curlin, with Robby Albarado aboard, paid $3 and $2.30. Tiago was third and returned $3.70.
Hard Spun finished fourth, followed by C P West, Imawildandcrazyguy and Slew's Tizzy.
It was Pletcher who made the surprise call to run Rags to Riches, who dominated her own division with four straight victories, including the Kentucky Oaks five weeks ago at Churchill Downs. The nation's top trainer said the absence of Street Sense, plus his filly's pedigree added up to taking a shot.
Drawing on the bloodlines that carried her father, A.P. Indy, and grandfather, Seattle Slew, to victory in the race, Rags to Riches also proved a worthy successor to last year's Belmont winner, half-brother Jazil.
"It's a special feeling to do it with a filly," Pletcher said of his first Triple Crown win. "When she stumbled, I had a bad feeling. When we turned for home and I saw Curlin sneak through on the inside, I knew it was going to be a horse race from there."
Was it ever.
Rags to Riches almost lost her chance at the start, stumbling out of the No. 7 post as the gates opened. But Velazquez and the filly quickly regained their cool and caught up to the pack. Meanwhile, long-shots C P West and Slew's Tizzy were setting a slow pace. By the time the field hit the far turn, Rags to Riches and Curlin was getting ready to give it all they had. The filly got the early jump and never gave in.
"Curlin is a competitor, he's got a lot of fight in him," Asmussen said. "To the last jump, I thought he'd win and I thought he'd come back."
Not only Rags to Riches the undisputed queen of racing, she's also a head above the boys. Pletcher said the filly may try to beat the boys this summer, in either the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park or the Travers at Saratoga. He also mentioned two filly races as possibilities, the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama.
Velazquez got to ride Rags to Riches because her regular rider, Garrett Gomez, had committed to Hard Spun and was unable to change.
While there was no Triple Crown on the line for the third year in a row, the races produced some sensational performances. Street Sense made a daring run up the rail to win the Derby, then was edged at the wire by Curlin in the Preakness. Rags to Riches finished off the series with a championship performance in the "Test of the Champion."
Rags to Riches earned $600,000 to boost her bankroll to $1,292,528 for owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, who bought the filly for $1.9 million at the Keeneland September yearling sale.
After finishing fourth in her only race as a 2-year-old, Rags to Riches is unbeaten in five starts this year, the first four with Garrett Gomez, who was unable to ride the filly in the Belmont because he had committed to Hard Spun.
Perhaps her three-quarter length win in the Las Virgenes was her most impressive as she raced five-wide around the first turn and four-wide around the second turn but still managed to win. The race was similar to the way she ran in the Belmont.
Then it was on to 5 1/2-length win in the Santa Anita Oaks and a 4 1/4-length win in the Kentucky Oaks.
And now, a Belmont champion.
"It was really giving me goose bumps thinking about the crowd, getting so pumped up about the filly running against the colts," Velazquez said. "In the race, people were yelling and screaming. It was a great thing to see the crowd enjoying the races. Afterwards, it was even better."