Filly rules

June 12, 2007

Forget The Sopranos. Must-see TV last weekend was the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the most emotionally satisfying Triple Crown series in years.

A combination of excellent equine athletes, colorful supporting players and the sheer unpredictability that is horse racing produced a show that gave the sport so important to Maryland a shot in the arm.

And, OK, this isn't really about girl power - except perhaps in the most literal sense. But when Rags to Riches dueled Preakness winner Curlin through the Belmont's closing stretch to become the first filly to win the mile-and-a-half classic in 102 years, the nearly three decades without a Triple Crown winner suddenly didn't seem to matter so much.

Remember where this season started, at Churchill Downs in early May, when Street Sense, ridden by a jockey so determined to hug the rail he dropped to 19th place to position himself, blasted past the huge field to finish first in the Kentucky Derby. A fairy tale ending to the drama came two days later when Calvin Borel, the endearingly humble Cajun jockey, was whisked with his fiancee to Washington for a state dinner at the White House with Queen Elizabeth II.

At the Preakness, it was Curlin's turn to shine, denying Street Sense a bid at the Triple Crown, but with a win-by-a-nose that was so nail-bitingly exciting it was hard to begrudge him his due.

The Belmont looked like a rematch between the two blazing colts until the Street Sense team decided to take a pass. That prompted what proved to be a shrewd marketing decision by the filly's trainer, Todd Pletcher, to let her run against the six-colt field. She was quickly the sentimental favorite.

Horses are raced every day around the world, often in front of tiny audiences more interested in putting together a winning combination of bets than in watching the competition.

But the potential for fan appeal is clearly there. Barbaro's eight-month battle to overcome his Preakness injury last year grabbed the nation by its heart - and broke it. Funny Cide, the scrappy little gelding who nearly won the Triple Crown in 2003, is still racing and featured in a popular Web site.

Now, there are three stars set to keep battling over the summer. Stay tuned.

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