ELMONT, N.Y. -- The race was barely a second old when jockey John Velazquez felt his heart grow cold. His mount, Rags to Riches, had stumbled out of the starting gate for the 139th Belmont Stakes.
"Please don't get hurt. Please don't pull off a shoe," Velazquez was thinking.
The jockey could have relaxed. The filly was just giving the colts a chance - a head start in the 1 1/2 -mile endurance test she was bred for.
Rags to Riches was on her way to history. Covering the route in 2 minutes, 28.74 seconds, including the last quarter-mile in 23.8 seconds, she beat the favorite Curlin by a generous head in a pulsating, side-by-side duel to the finish. She paid $10.60 to win. Tiago finished third, 5 1/2 lengths back.
The victory makes the daughter of A.P. Indy the first filly to win the Belmont Stakes in 102 years and only the third in history.
It was also the first victory in a Triple Crown race for trainer Todd Pletcher in 29 tries.
"I couldn't do it the easy way with a colt," Pletcher said, almost impishly. "This is pretty special when you look at the historical perspective. Boy, if you look at the statistics all week, you know, no filly's won it in 102 years. That's pretty intimidating stuff.
"I kept coming back to her pedigree. A.P. Indy and half-sister to last year's winner [Jazil]. ... There was never a doubt in my mind that she would get the mile and a half; whether or not as a filly she was good enough to do it against quality horses like Curlin and Hard Spun, that was the million dollar question."
She was. No one argued that.
"I thought Curlin ran extremely well," said his trainer, Steve Asmussen. "They came into the stretch pretty much heads-up. He fought back very well. But my hat is off to Rags to Riches. They ran the last quarter in 23 4/5 in a mile-and-a-half race. She's a deserving classic winner.
"We lose one the exact same way we won the Preakness over Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. That's horse racing."
The victory set off a wild celebration in the grandstands, where a small (46,870) but appreciative crowd was screaming encouragement from the moment it saw the chestnut with the wide white blaze on her face turn onto the track after the walk from the paddock.
"It gave me goose bumps," said Velazquez, who won his first Triple Crown race in his 21st try.
Pletcher was somewhat taken aback by the support.
"As a rule, we're probably the one everyone is rooting against," said the trainer, who has won Eclipse Awards as the top trainer in the country for the past three years. "The reaction was unbelievable - and after we won it was amazing. It was a great day for racing and a great day for the filly."
The race capped a wonderful Triple Crown series during which Street Sense produced a stirring victory in the Kentucky Derby, Curlin won a tenacious duel in the Preakness and Rags to Riches joined her father, A.P. Indy, and grandfather Seattle Slew in the Belmont winner's circle.
Unlike colts who win Triple Crown races and whose stud fees shoot up, Rags to Riches had nothing to gain for her owners, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, but the $600,000 winner's share of the purse and history.
"For us, it's all about the prestige of a filly winning a Belmont, because we're not going to sell her anyway," Tabor said. "She's not a colt. If it was a colt, it puts a different perspective on it. As it's a filly, we are just here to enjoy and win.
"And it's what the public wants and what we want. You get much more enjoyment watching the best run against the best."
Yesterday, the filly gave nearly everybody what they wanted. After stumbling from the gate, she recovered and was back on her game entering the first turn. The race had begun slowly, with the field of seven covering the first quarter-mile in 24.74 and the half in 50.14.
By the time C P West and Slew's Tizzy led the field around the first turn, Rags to Riches had settled in on the outside, behind the leaders. She went six wide down the backstretch, with Velazquez and Robby Albarado, on board Curlin, keeping their eyes on each other.
"I knew where she was the whole race," Albarado said. "Johnny was looming on the outside of Hard Spun on the backside, which was fine. I made a move at the quarter pole, which was fine. I bulled my way through there, pushed Hard Spun out of the way and once I got through there, the filly jumped on top of me.
"Johnny rode a great race. ... She's phenomenal. I thought I put Curlin in all the right places ... saving ground on both turns. It is where I wanted to be the whole race.
"I got through on the inside of [Hard Spun, ridden by Garrett] Gomez at the quarter pole, which was perfect, and got a chance to get a breather," Albarado said. "But they came home fast. He never stopped. And I thought, at one point, he could come back and get her, but she is tough. She is amazing. I have no excuses whatsoever."
Rags to Riches is the first filly to win a Triple Crown race since 1988:
Genuine Risk 1980
Winning Colors 1988
Rhine Maiden 1915
Nellie Morse 1924
Rags to Riches 2007