Union Rags Redeems Self In Belmont Stks.
Pulls Off Victory In Crown-Less Race
While there will always be questions about what might have been following the late scratch of Triple Crown hopeful I’ll Have Another, the 144th Belmont Stakes run last Saturday, June 9, at Belmont Park proved to be a race of redemption for Union Rags.
Considered earlier this year as one of the favorites to win the Kentucky Derby—only to finish seventh after encountering traffic trouble—Union Rags surged along the rail in the final 100 yards to catch the pace-setting Paynter at the wire of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, the third leg of racing’s Triple Crown.
Union Rags—owned by Phyllis Wyeth, trained by Michael Matz (who also trained the late Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro) and ridden by John Velazquez—went off as the favorite in the Belmont, assuming the spot that was previously occupied by I’ll Have Another, whose bid to become the 12th Triple Crown champion ended a day before the gates opened.
Last Friday morning, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner was simultaneously withdrawn from the Belmont Stakes and retired from racing by owner J. Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill after an examination found tendonitis in the left front leg. It was the first time since 1936 that a horse entering the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown did not run in the race.
Even with the disappointment surrounding the premature end of I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown bid, over 85,000 turned out at Belmont Park for last Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, the largest-ever crowd to witness the race without a Triple Crown on the line—and they weren’t disappointed by a card full of graded stakes and a wild finish to the main event.
Union Rags got away from the starting gate well and was taken to the rail in the first few furlongs of the Belmont Stakes, while Paynter took the early lead and set soft fractions through the first half-mile.
Paynter was looking for redemption for his connections—jockey Mike Smith, trainer Bob Baffert and owner Zayat Stables—who also led Bodemeister to runner up performances in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. In both of those races, Bodemeister tried to go wire-to-wire, only to be caught in the last few yards by I’ll Have Another.
When the field hit the top of the Belmont stretch, Paynter was still on the lead and had turned back challenges by Unstoppable U and My Adonis, with only the longshot Atigun— who made a move on the outside— and Union Rags on the rail to beat.
Smith went to a left-handed whip with Paynter and began to edge away from Atigun, but this provided Velazquez with an opening on the rail by which to squeeze Union Rags through for one last charge at the lead.
“I waited for a hole to open up and I got lucky,” Velazquez later said. “The horse did it all.”
With less than a sixteenth of a mile to the finish, Union Rags poked his head in front and hit the finish line a neck in front of Paynter. Atigun finished third, about 1 1/2 lengths off the winner.
“Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?” asked Baffert following yet another second-place performance by a Zayat-owned horse in the Triple Crown series. “It looked like it was ours. I really felt like I was going to win the Belmont. It was snatched away again.”
For the connections of Union Rags, however, the victory provided some vindication following his losses in both the Florida and Kentucky derbies. Following his seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Matz switched riders, with Velazquez picking up the mount from Julien Leparoux, who rode Atigun in the Belmont Stakes to a third-place effort.
“We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential,” Matz said after the race. “I do really think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, is one of the best three-year-olds in this crop. Whether he could have done something against I’ll Have Another, I don’t know, but it sure would have been fun to see.”
Union Rags’ Belmont win also fulfilled the dreams of owner Phyllis Wyeth, wife of artist Jamie Wyeth, who primarily owns steeplechase horses. She originally sold Union Rags as a yearling, but after regretting the decision, later bought the horse back at three times the original sales price.
“It was my dream and he made it come true,” she said. “Nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than [Velazquez]. ... He believed in the horse and [Matz] got him there.”
In published reports, Matz indicated that he would likely point Union Rags to either the Jim Dandy Stakes or the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course later this summer. Baffert stated that he would possibly send Paynter to Saratoga as well.
Union Rags won the Belmont Stakes with a time of 2:30.42, well off Secretariat’s world and track record of 2:24 in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, and earned $600,000 for his connections.
Following the top three in the Belmont Stakes were (in the order of finish) Street Life, Five Sixteen, Unstoppable U, Dullahan, My Adonis, Ravelo’s Boy, Optimizer and Guyana Star Dweej.
Prior to the Belmont Stakes, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) held a retirement ceremony for I’ll Have Another, with trainer O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez unsaddling the champion thoroughbred for the final time in the winner’s circle. Following the race, I’ll Have Another was shipped back to California and will likely begin his stud career next season.
“He’s had an incredible run. In any sport you have to stay injury free. Unfortunately he came up with a slight injury. Could we have run him? Yes. But would that have been the right move? No,” O’Neill said. “I was proud of the whole team. It was unanimous in not running him. It’s been such an unbelievable run. He’s a once in a lifetime horse. We’re just focused on all the great part of this journey he took us through.”
Original plans to have I’ll Have Another lead the post parade for the Belmont Stakes were scrapped earlier that morning.
Other results from Saturday
• Desert Blanc captured the Grade 1, $500,000 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap on the inner turf course under jockey Ramon Dominguez, who squeezed his way between rivals Hudson Steele and Papaw Bodie. At the line, he was a nose in front of Papaw Bodie, while Boisterous was 1 1/2 lenghts back in third.
Owned by Swift Thoroughbreds Inc. and Mackie Racing and trained by Chad Brown, the English-bred Desert Blanc covered the 1 1/4-mile Manhattan Handicap in 1:59.65 and earned $300,000. He previously finished second in Belmont’s Fort Marcy Handicap on May 5.
• After setting the pace in the Kentucky Derby and finishing in 17th place, Trinniberg bounced back to win the Grade 2, $400,000 Woody Stephens Stakes on the Belmont Park main track. Leading every step of the way, Trinniberg hit the wire 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Currency Swap and Il Villano.
Trinniberg, who is owned by Shivananda Parbhoo and trained by father Bisnath Parboo, won the seven-furlong sprint in 1:22.26. Following the race, Shivananda Parbhoo indicated that the horse would be pointed to the King’s Bishop Stakes at Saratoga in August.
• With a surge down the stretch, Caixa Eletronica caught Justin Phillip at the line of the Grade 2, $400,000 True North Handicap. He covered the six furlongs on the main track in 1:09.52.
• Tapitsfly scored a wire-to-wire win in the $500,000 Longines Just A Game Stakes over Winter Memories and Hungry Island, running the turf mile in a stakes record 1:32.34.
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