On June 9th at Belmont Park, at approximately 6:29pm, the starters loaded the field into the starting gate for the 139th running of the Belmont Stakes. But when the gates opened, the race seemed more like the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (also a mile and a half race at Belmont Park, but run on the grass in the fall) than the final leg of the Triple Crown. In a typical Belmont Stakes, the leaders will average about 24 1/5 seconds for the first four quarters and then those runners with any energy left will roll down the stretch in about 51 3/5 seconds. This year, it was run more like a turf race, with the leaders showing no speed for the first mile and then the field making a mad dash for the finish line.
Check out the table below to see the average split times for the Belmont Stakes from 2001-2006, last year’s Turf Classic and this year’s Belmont Stakes:
|Belmont Stakes '01-'06||:23.4||:48.1||1:12.2||1:36.4||2:02.1||2:28.3|
|Turf Classic '06||:25.2||:51.1||1:16.1||1:39.4||2:03.4||2:28.3|
|Belmont Stakes '07||:24.3||:50.0||1:15.1||1:40.1||2:04.4||2:28.3|
Running split times more in line with the 2006 Turf Classic than the typical Belmont Stakes, the leaders strolled through the first mile in 25 second quarters and then, in a thrilling stretch duel, Rags to Riches and Curlin streaked home in 48 2/5 seconds to produce one of the most exciting finishes in Belmont Stakes history.
It certainly didn’t have to happen that way. As I discussed in my pre-race analysis, this was the perfect opportunity for Hard Spun to use his natural speed to take control of the race. Hard Spun could have easily set a reasonable pace of 1:38 or so for the mile and been relaxed on an easy lead with plenty left in the tank for the stretch run. Instead, Hard Spun was wrangled back early and C P West was allowed to stroll through a mile in 1:40 1/5. Hard Spun wasted so much energy fighting jockey Garrett Gomez early that he had nothing left in the final quarter mile of the race.
Not that I’m complaining.
While it could have been a much different outcome with a faster early pace, the actual result was spectacular. Turning into the stretch, there were four horses across the track: from the rail out it was race leader C P West, Curlin, Hard Spun and Rags to Riches. In an instant, C P West and Hard Spun seemingly disappeared and it was the filly Rags to Riches with the lead on the outside and Preakness winner Curlin running stride for stride to her inside. In midstretch, Rags to Riches moved a half length ahead only to have Curlin come right back at her. Even as they neared the wire, the result was in doubt. As determined as Rags to Riches was, Curlin was her equal. As it turned out, the race was won at the top of the stretch when Rags to Riches got the jump on Curlin turning for home. Curlin was never able to make a dent in her modest lead.
From the moment Rags to Riches took that lead at the top of the stretch, the crowd of 46,870 responded as if they knew they were seeing history being made. And they were. The last time a filly won the Belmont Stakes was the 39th running in 1905 when Tanya won the then mile and one quarter race. Since then, only a few of racing’s very best fillies have run in the Belmont Stakes. The most recent were Silverbulletday in 1999 (finished 7th) and My Flag in 1996 (finished 3rd). Before that there were the legendary Kentucky Derby winning fillies Winning Colors in 1988 (finished 6th) and Genuine Risk in 1980 (finished 2nd). All great fillies. All failed to win the Test of Champions.
As the horses crossed the finish line and it became clear that Rags to Riches had won the Belmont Stakes, the crowd was electric. The victory clearly resonated with the fans at Belmont Park that day on a very emotional level. We had witnessed something very special. It wasn’t about exactas or pick-6’s. It was thoroughbred horse racing at it’s very best. It was art.
I don’t know what trainer Todd Pletcher has in mind for Rags to Riches for the remainder of the year. Most likely she’ll return to facing her own sex in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont and/or the Alabama at Saratoga. But later this fall, instead of the Gazelle or Beldame, maybe Pletcher will take a look at the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. After all, Rags to Riches has already shown she knows how to win it.
This time the race goes through Hard Spun.
In the Kentucky Derby he battled a slew of other front-runners into submission only to have Street Sense ride a perfect trip past him in the stretch. Despite doing all of the heavy lifting early, he ran on to finish second – ahead of eighteen other horses.
In the Preakness he tried to sit off the early speed only to be forced to the lead too soon when his running position deteriorated. Once again having to contend with other early speed left him without the reserves necessary to hold off Street Sense and eventual race winner Curlin. Still, he was tenacious in the stretch for a third place finish.
In both races his natural early speed was his downfall. There was no way he was going to be able to battle multiple runners with speed early and outrun the closers late. In spite of his disadvantageous running style, he showed courage both times and finshed strongly.
This time, in the Belmont Stakes, his running style will finally be to his advantage. There are no other horses in this race with enough speed to pressure him early. Slew’s Tizzy is the only other horse with any interest in being forwardly placed but does not possess the high cruising speed of Hard Spun. The challenge will be for new jockey Garrett Gomez to get Hard Spun relaxed and happy at the front of the pack, or just off of Slew’s Tizzy, and to ease him through the first half of the race without taking too much out of him. If he succeeds, Hard Spun should be hard to catch in the stretch.
Hard, but not impossible.
Curlin was a bear coming home in the Preakness and, given that he still has only raced five times in his career, we may not have seen his best yet. I expect Curlin to sit midpack, with Rags to Riches, and to try to get an early jump on Hard Spun coming out of the far turn. After seeing him run down Street Sense three weeks ago, I can’t help but believe he’ll find a way to reel in Hard Spun by the time they reach the wire.
Sired by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, the Todd Pletcher trained filly Rags to Riches is certainly bred to handle the distance. The winner of three straight Grade 1 races against fillies, the last two with consumate ease, Rags to Riches will likely get a perfect stalking position on the outside. Should the top two runners take a step back after two tough races, this fresh, talented filly could be there at the end to give Pletcher his first classic victory.
Thoroughbred Report Picks:
1st: #3 Curlin
2nd: #6 Hard Spun
Final note: If the track comes up sloppy or muddy, the advantage would switch to Hard Spun.
139th Belmont Stakes
Saturday June 9th, 2007
Belmont Park, Elmont, NY
Probable Post: 6:25pm
|1||IMAWILDANDCRAZYGUY||William Kaplan||M. Guidry||20-1|
|2||TIAGO||John Shirreffs||M. Smith||10-1|
|3||CURLIN||Steve Asmussen||R. Albarado||6-5|
|4||C P WEST||Nick Zito||E. Prado||12-1|
|5||SLEW’S TIZZY||Gregory Fox||R. Bejarano||20-1|
|6||HARD SPUN||Larry Jones||G. Gomez||5-2|
|7||RAGS TO RICHES||Todd Pletcher||J. Velazquez||3-1|