Will Mei Ling Rebound in the Rags to Riches Invitational?

Will Mei Ling Rebound in the Rags to Riches Invitational?

Photo by NYRA/Coglianese Photos/Chelsea Durand

I have always been a fan of races at 1 1/2 miles or longer, so I’m very excited about the inaugural renewal of the $150,000 Rags to Riches Invitational, a 1 1/2-mile dirt race for fillies and mares that will be held on June 10th at Belmont Park. Although the race has only drawn six starters, none have any experience at this distance on dirt, which makes the race very challenging to handicap and provides opportunity for finding value.

When handicapping the race, one mare that really jumps out at me is Mei Ling. Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, has enjoyed remarkable success in long-distance races in the U.S., winning two renewals of the Belmont Stakes with Rags to Riches (for whom this race is named) and Palace Malice, the inaugural renewal of the two-mile Belmont Gold Cup with Charming Kitten, and the first two editions of the two-mile H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Gulfstream Park with Unitarian and Charming Kitten.

I still remember Pletcher’s comments after Unitarian’s win in the Allen Jerkens, when Pletcher said that he wanted to win the race from the moment he saw it on the stakes schedule. Interestingly, Pletcher has made similar statements about the Rags to Riches Stakes–in an article on the New York Racing Association website, Pletcher said “I had this race in mind since it was released on the stakes schedule. I thought at the time when I first saw it that if [Mei Ling] was doing well it might be a race that would suit her.”

And from all appearances, Mei Ling is doing very well. She’s been racing steadily since last June and has hit the board in nine of her eleven races during that timeframe, including a decisive win in the Heavenly Prize Stakes and runner-up efforts in the Go For Wand Handicap (gr. II) and Top Flight Handicap (gr. III). She didn’t fire last time out when sixth in the Allaire DuPont Distaff Stakes (gr. III) at Pimlico, but regarding that effort, Pletcher said in the same NYRA article that “She never really seemed to get into a good rhythm like she normally does. She was a little warm in the post parade as well, so maybe she was a little unsettled. It was out of character for her because she usually shows up and runs her race – draw a line through it and try again.”

In terms of pedigree, Mei Ling is bred very well for handling twelve furlongs, being by Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker out of a mare by Seeking the Gold, runner-up in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Mei Ling has never finished out of the trifecta in six starts at Belmont Park, and also figures to have a significant tactical advantage in the Rags to Riches since she’s the only horse in the field that has consistently shown early speed. I think Mei Ling will have no trouble securing the early lead in the Rags to Riches Invitational, and from there, I think she can lead this field all the way around and triumph in gate-to-wire fashion.

Theogony and Joint Return, the second- and third-place finishers in the DuPont Distaff, are both capable graded stakes competitors that figure to draw a lot of wagering support, but for a live longshot, I am intrigued by Sweetgrass. She hasn’t hit the board in three starts this year, but all of those races were on turf, and arguably her best finish came when finishing fifth in a twelve-furlong allowance race at Keeneland, making Sweetgrass the only filly in the Rags to Riches with any experience at all going twelve furlongs. Last year, racing on dirt, Sweetgrass ran third by a half-length in the Iowa Oaks (gr. III) and second by a length in the Indiana Oaks (gr. II) after tracking the early pace, and a return to dirt in the Rags to Riches could be all she needs to rebound in a big way. She also picks up the services of the three-time Eclipse award-winning jockey Javier Castellano, and I think all of this adds up to a strong showing at odds of 5-1 or greater.

Good luck to all, and enjoy the race!

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Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin’s quest to become North America’s richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners.

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