The best horsemen in the business like to change things up every once in a while in the Belmont Stakes.
Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas ran 1988 Kentucky Derby-winning filly Winning Colors in the Belmont and she finished sixth. Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey ran one of his top fillies, My Flag, in the 1996 Belmont and she finished third.
Todd Pletcher ran his filly Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont and she won – and now he wants to see if he can win it again with another filly, Unlimited Budget. It doesn’t hurt that he has four other entries for Saturday’s final leg of the Triple Crown in Revolutionary, Palace Malice, Overanalyze and Midnight Taboo.
But much of the attention is on Unlimited Budget, a big, muscular filly owned by Mike Repole, who thought she was a colt the first time he laid eyes on her in a sales ring. That Rosie Napravnik will be aboard only ”makes for a better story,” Repole says, adding that he’s ”a little more comfortable knowing Todd has done it before.
”He’s run one filly in the Belmont and he’s undefeated,” he said. ”I like that.”
Pletcher has said he believes Unlimited Budget is bred to handle the 1 1-2 miles of the Belmont, the longest race most horses will ever run. She is a daughter of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, but says the bottom side of her pedigree is not as deep in stamina as Rags to Riches.
Nonetheless, the filly who won her first four starts before finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks is listed as the co-fourth choice at 8-1 in the 14-horse field. Kentucky Derby winner Orb is the 3-1 favorite, with Revolutionary at 9-2 and Preakness winner Oxbow at 5-1.
”I think this is one year the fillies are as good as the colts, and the numbers show it,” said Repole, who also owns Overanalyze and Midnight Taboo. ”She’s a big filly, and she’s bigger than half the colts in the race.”
Running fillies against the boys can be risky. Lukas sent out Winning Colors in the Santa Anita Derby to see if she could handle colts. McGaughey’s My Flag had impeccable bloodlines, by 1989 Belmont winner Easy Goer, out of the unbeaten mare Personal Ensign.
”I think it’s a very large step for a filly who hasn’t run that much and hasn’t run against colts,” said McGaughey, who trains Orb. ”If you run a filly and you are wrong, you can be really wrong. That would be the one thing that would worry me.”
Winning Colors had 10 more races after competing in all three legs of the Triple Crown, but won only twice, while My Flag came back and won the Coaching Club American Oaks after the Belmont and raced eight more times.
After becoming the third filly to win the Belmont – and first in 102 years – Rags to Riches ran only one more time, finishing second in the Gazelle three months later. Pletcher said a stumble at the start of the Belmont is what may have compromised her career more than taking on the boys in a grueling race.
”She took a pretty nasty fall down to her nose at the beginning of that race,” Pletcher said. ”If there was any negative effects, I think it came from that; it wasn’t the mile-and-a-half distance.”
Napravnik, seeking to become the second woman to win a Triple Crown race (Julie Krone won the 1993 Belmont with Colonial Affair), has ridden Unlimited Budget before, winning the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 23.
”She’s a big, strong filly, and obviously she’s been training well,” said Napravnik. ”With a big field, it’s going to be a tough race for everyone. But I don’t think she will be intimidated – she looks more like a colt. Plus, she can sit close to the pace, or close into it.”
With rain – heavy at times – in the forecast for Friday into early Saturday morning, there is a chance for a wet track. That could bode well for the first three Derby finishers – Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary – who handled a sloppy track at Churchill Downs.
Freedom Child flourished on a wet track at Belmont four weeks ago, winning the Peter Pan by a stunning 13 1-4 lengths.
”If it’s wet, we’ll certainly take it,” said Freedom Child’s trainer Tom Albertrani.
After Thursday’s races, Belmont’s main dirt track was scheduled to be rolled and sealed ”in anticipation of heavy rains,” said Glen Kozak, the New York Racing Association’s vice president of facilities and racing surfaces. Tractors will be equipped with heavy metal rollers that are used to compress the dirt so water doesn’t seep into the surface.
”What we actually get in terms of rainfall will determine how we manage the track on Friday with respect to training and other preparations,” Kozak said.