After a historic Triple Crown that began with the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to capture the Kentucky Derby and concluded with the first filly to beat the boys in the Belmont Stakes in 102 years, more history figures to be made by this compelling crop of 3-year-olds during the second half of the year.
Rags to Riches, who became the talk of racing with her victory over Preakness Stakes winner Curlin in the Belmont on Saturday, could face the boys again this year, perhaps as soon as the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 25, according to her trainer, Todd Pletcher.
The year is not even half over, but Rags to Riches already has secured the 3-year-old filly championship, so there is temptation to aim for Horse of the Year, too. Street Sense, the Derby winner, and Curlin will be battling for the 3-year-old male title, and all will have to usurp last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Invasor, to wrest away Horse of the Year.
Three different horses won Triple Crown races this year, and yet all three races were terrific, with two decided by photo finishes. Street Sense unleashed a powerful closing rush to win the Derby, Curlin outbattled Street Sense to narrowly win the Preakness, and then Rags to Riches defeated Curlin after a terrific stretch duel in the Belmont.
Rags to Riches came out of the Belmont well and will now be pointed for the Grade 1, $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks for fillies at 1 1/4 miles at Belmont Park on July 21, Pletcher said.
"That should set her up for the Travers," Pletcher said at his Belmont Park barn Sunday morning. The $1 million Travers, like the CCA Oaks, is a Grade 1 race at 1 1/4 miles.
"I can't get too caught up right now in Horse of the Year," Pletcher added. "We've got to do what's best for her the rest of the year. But any time you do something that hasn't been done for 102 years, that has to carry an extra amount of weight in the balloting."
If Pletcher decides to opt out of the Travers and keep Rags to Riches with fillies this summer, she would head to the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama Stakes on Aug. 18, also at 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga.
Rags to Riches got a Beyer Speed Figure of 107 in the Belmont. She also completed the final quarter-mile in 23.83 seconds, the first time the winner had shaded 24 seconds for the final quarter-mile of the Belmont since Peace Chant in 1934.
Further underscoring the quality of this Belmont is a comparison of the pace to a similarly run race last decade. The pace of this Belmont, set by C P West, was dawdling, with fractions of 24.74 seconds, 50.14, 1:15.32, and 1:40.23 through one mile. In the 1995 Belmont, Star Standard set fractions of 24.40, 50.20, 1:15.20, and 1:40. The 1995 winner, Thunder Gulch, completed 1 1/2 miles on a fast track in 2:32. Rags to Riches was timed in 2:28.74.
Thunder Gulch was owned by Michael Tabor, who is the co-owner of Rags to Riches. Tabor and his adviser, Demi O'Byrne, were early supporters of Pletcher when he first went out on his own, which Pletcher said made his first Triple Crown win as a trainer even more special.
"They gave me a chance when I needed a chance," Pletcher said.
Pletcher was battling the flu beginning Friday morning, and was still a bit weary Sunday. But the win was satisfying for him, and popular among his staff.
"It's exciting," Pletcher said. "I'm still trying to let it all sink in."
In Kentucky, Michael McCarthy, the Pletcher assistant who oversaw the training of Rags to Riches when she was in California this winter while Pletcher was on suspension, said he watched the race in the office of Pletcher's Churchill Downs barn.
"When she started to make her move, I thought, 'It's really going to happen,' " McCarthy said.
Rags to Riches clearly was the crowd favorite in the paddock, during the post parade, and, of course, after the race.
"Usually we're the one everybody is rooting against," Pletcher said. "It was nice to be the underdog."
"Usually when we win a Grade 1 race, it's 'Oh, well, another race for Pletcher,' " said Tristan Barry, Pletcher's top assistant at Belmont Park. "When she won, people were genuinely excited. We were going through the tunnel after the race, and people were pumped up, giving us high fives."
"After the race, her ears were pricked and she wasn't even that winded," said Anna Seitz, who also assists Pletcher. "She's a phenomenal filly and a true class act."
Curlin, who was second in the Belmont after finishing third in the Derby and winning the Preakness, returned to Churchill Downs on Sunday morning, where trainer Steve Asmussen was plotting the second half of the year. He said the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 5 would be Curlin's next target. Asmussen said the fact that the Breeders' Cup is at Monmouth this year on Oct. 27 makes the Haskell a better fit than the Gradeo2, $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 29.
"It's all about winning the Classic," Asmussen said, referring to the $5omillion Breeders' Cup Classic. "By running in the Haskell, we can find out how he'll handle that track and what adjustments we need to make."
Curlin and Hard Spun were the only two horses to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
"I keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking he's going to catch her," Asmussen said. "I'm very proud of him. He's a throwback. He's so tough. You can run him against anybody, anywhere, anytime."
The speedy Hard Spun, who was fourth in the Belmont after finishing second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, returned to Delaware Park on Sunday. His main goal this fall also is the Classic, trainer Larry Jones said.
"The Breeders' Cup is the main objective," Jones said. "How we get there, I really don't know yet. He wouldn't do anything before the Haskell. He needs to get his motor recharged."
Jones said he would like to race Hard Spun on the grass at some point this fall.
Jones was dismayed with the ride Hard Spun got in the Belmont. Garrett Gomez replaced Mario Pino, who was criticized for moving to the lead in 1:09.80 for six furlongs in the Preakness. In the Belmont, Hard Spun was restrained in third through six furlongs in 1:15.32.
"I was really agitated he went 1:09 and change in the Preakness, and I'm really agitated he was not in front in 1:15 in the Belmont," Jones said. "If someone had told me they'd go 1:15 and change and he wouldn't be on the lead, I wouldn't have believed it."
Street Sense, who won the Derby and was second in the Preakness, sat out the Belmont. His trainer, Carl Nafzger, on Monday said Street Sense had been galloping most every morning at Churchill Downs, but wouldn't have any serious workouts again until the end of this month.
Nafzger said Street Sense would return in the Haskell or the Jim Dandy, then move on to the Travers.
"Then he'll have one more race before the Classic," Nafzger said.