The Belmont Stakes, assessed.

Examining culture and the arts.
June 11 2007 10:16 AM

The Lady Is a Champ

When fillies beat the colts at Belmont.

It was a historic race—the kind you always hope to see. At the 139th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, two red horses with white blazes came driving down the stretch neck-and-neck. As one pulled ahead, the other surged back. But it was the horse on the outside—smaller but faster—who finally pulled ahead. For the first time since 1905, a filly had won the Belmont. In the last strides, Rags to Riches, winner of the Kentucky Oaks, dramatically held off Curlin, Preakness champion and odds-on favorite.

Before the race, ABC's commentators had been jawing on about the impending "battle of the sexes." One went on about how Rags to Riches was not just a "petite" filly who might be "intimidated" by the colts. No, she had "the moxie to look the colts in the eye." Indeed she did. She looked them in the eye and passed them by. It didn't look like it would turn out that way at first—she stumbled breaking from the gate, causing the announcers to gasp. (There's a picture here.)  Then she had to come wide around the final turn at Belmont (a big track, with larger-than-usual turns). Even so, when she made her move, at just the moment Curlin did, she seemed to jump to a gear he didn't have. When he powerfully challenged her she looked him in the eye—moxie indeed—and turned on the speed to pass him.

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There's no doubt that Rags to Riches is, as Charlotte the spider might have said, some horse. She made an indelible impression in the Las Virgenes Stakes this February, when she got bumped then was forced wide around both turns before catching Baroness Thatcher. A month later, she trounced her peers in the Santa Anita Oaks, a prep for the fillies' Triple Crown, where she demonstrated what the track announcer called an "electrifying turn of speed" as she demolished the field. "They would need to sprout wings to get to Rags to Riches; she is romping in the Santa Anita Oaks!" he exclaimed, sprouting improbable metaphors himself. Her appearance in the Kentucky Oaks heralded more of the same. (Watch her races here, here and here.)  Her owners, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, began to entertain the notion of running her against the colts. When Street Sense, the Derby winner, pulled out, it became official: She would become the 22nd filly to enter the Belmont Stakes.

A superstitious person might say Rags to Riches passed Curlin in the stretch with the ghost of another great filly whispering into her ear. That filly is Ruffian, the brilliant champion buried at Belmont not far from where she broke down in the famous 1975 "Boy vs. Girl" match race with Derby champion Foolish Pleasure. In one of those unearthly coincidences, ABC was scheduled to broadcast Ruffian, a made-for-TV movie chronicling her achievements, later that night. And sportswriter William Nack had just published a moving memoir (by the same name) about the big black filly, celebrating her brilliance and mourning the horrific injury—a broken leg—that ended her career in front of a crowd of 50,000 people. (Ruffian was operated on, much like Barbaro, but she came out of the anesthesia trying to run, like the great athlete that she was, and broke another leg. She was promptly put down.)

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