Elmont, N.Y. -- At the start of this week, the Belmont Stakes was looking a bit bedraggled and seriously in need of some oomph.
The oomph arrived in three-time Grade I-winning filly Rags to Riches, a femme fatale who will take on the biggest, strongest 3-year-olds in the country Saturday. Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, said she has everything she needs to do it, too, from an outstanding pedigree to a beautiful head and "keen, smart eye."
"She's a really, really wonderful filly," said Pletcher, who was at Belmont Park yesterday for the post-position draw. "She's the whole package."
And she couldn't have arrived on the scene at a better time.
Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense had bowed out, and the field for the Triple Crown's third jewel was looking sketchy. Who would contend against Curlin, the Preakness winner and Derby third-place finisher, and Hard Spun, who finished second in the Derby and third in the Preakness?
Larry Roman, who owns Digger, a Maryland-bred allowance winner at Laurel Park, said he had felt so bad about the race he has dreamed of winning since boyhood, he entered his horse just to make sure there would be a respectable number of also-rans.
"It annoyed me when they announced Street Sense wasn't coming," Roman said. "So I thought we could add something to the race and have a legitimate chance for third, fourth or fifth. But now, with Rags to Riches in the field, I think she's created the most excitement since Affirmed and Alydar. My horse won't run."
Curlin is the morning-line favorite at 6-5 and drew the No. 3 post, while Hard Spun is the second choice at 5-2 and will break from the No. 6 hole.
Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, called Rags to Riches, third choice at 3-1, "a very intriguing horse," but added: "There are no comparisons to make because she has never run against males. She's not going to be a pace factor, so her running is not really going to change how the race is run. She's just another quality horse in the race, and Curlin is going to have to run extremely well to win."
Rags to Riches will start from the outside, No. 7 post and will become the 22nd filly to run in the Belmont. My Flag finished third in 1996. In the Belmont's 138 runnings, fillies have won twice - Ruthless in the inaugural race in 1867 and Tanya in 1905, the year Belmont Park opened.
"Last year, we drew about 60,000 fans," said Charles Hayward, president and chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association, which operates Belmont Park. "She could mean an additional 5,000 to 10,000 in attendance, and she helps to make it a great handicappers' race."
Rags to Riches, bought by Michael Tabor for $1.9 million as a yearling, has won four of five lifetime races and has a bankroll of $692,528. She breezed five furlongs Sunday in 1 minute, 3 4/5 seconds.
Yesterday, Pletcher acknowledged there is "not much successful history to draw on" in preparing a filly for the Belmont, but added he isn't that concerned.
"She's an underdog because she's doing something few have been able to do successfully," he said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if she won. If you look at the fillies that have run before her, besides My Flag, they were not bred for this kind of race."
Rags to Riches seems to be exactly the horse for the course. She is the daughter of 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy and Better Than Honour, who also gave birth to Jazil, last year's Belmont winner.
"There may not be a better-bred horse in America for this 1 1/2 -mile distance," Pletcher said. "But I wasn't going to run her if all three of the top Derby and Preakness finishers came. When Street Sense decided not to come, I realized this would be a perfect spot for her. I also was concerned about keeping her in this top condition for three more weeks until the Mother Goose.
"Here, she's 3-1. In the Mother Goose she'd have been 1-5, but winning the Mother Goose wasn't going to do anything for her. This is more exciting."
The late entry means Rags to Riches will not have her usual jockey, Garrett Gomez, on board, because he had already been given permission to ride Hard Spun. Instead, John Velazquez will have the mount.
PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds
1 Imawildandcrazyguy Bill Kaplan Mark Guidry 20-1
2 Tiago John Shirreffs Mike Smith 10-1
3 Curlin Steve Asmussen Robby Albarado 6-5
4 CP West Nick Zito Edgar Prado 12-1
5 Slew's Tizzy Greg Fox Rafael Bejarano 20-1
6 Hard Spun Larry Jones Garrett Gomez 5-2
7 Rags to Riches Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 3-1