Things finally worked out for Union Rags.
After the Dixie Union colt encountered trouble in both the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, a jockey switch to John Velazquez saw Union Rags capture the $1 million Belmont Stakes by a head for trainer Michael Matz. The bay sophomore was sent off the 5-2 second choice in the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion" and stopped the clock in 2:30 2/5 to earn just his second win of the year.
"I knew. I had a dream. I knew he would make it," said Union Rags' 71-year-old owner, Phyllis Wyeth. "I only have that racehorse and half of another, a claimer. And I knew Michael (Matz) could do it with him. It was my dream and he made it come true today. He and Johnny (Velazquez).
"I knew he could do it. And nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today, I can tell you that. That was unbelievable. He just said 'Move over, I'm coming.' He believed in the horse. And Michael got him there."
Wyeth bred Union Rags, but actually sold the Kentucky-bred colt for $145,000 as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale. Reconsidering and regretting that move, she bought him back, in the name of her Chadds Ford Stable, for $390,000 at Fasig-Tipton Florida last February.
"I'm just glad for Phyllis and the horse," Matz acknowledged. "We just got to see the real Union Rags."
Jockey Mike Smith sent Paynter straight to the front through splits of :23 3/5, :49 1/5, 1:14 3/5, 1:38 4/5 and 2:04 1/5. Velazquez kept Union Rags down on the inside running in midpack on the backstretch, and the colt began advancing entering the turn. Still maintaining his position on the rail, the bay inched forward as Paynter left plenty of room for him to slip through and just get his head in front on the line.
"He just worked so unbelievable, I was just hoping he could put that work into this race and he did," Velazquez said. "I was very proud of him. Just to be home (in New York) this was my opportunity here. It was incredible; there aren't words to describe it.
"It's incredible (to win this race for trainer Michael Matz). They liked this horse for so long, and for him to finally rise up to the top again, I'm very, very happy for him.
"I guess I'm the lucky one. I guess that's the only way to describe it," Velazquez remarked when asked about winning a Triple Crown race for the second year in a row aboard a pick-up mount. "I guess what is meant to be for you is meant to be for you."
Paynter gave it his best try but just couldn't hold off the grinding rally from Union Rags, who returned $7.50, $4.20, $3.40.
"Is there a Triple Crown for seconds? I need a Triple Crown for seconds," quipped Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who saddled Bodemeister to second in the Derby and Preakness before sending out Paynter in the Belmont.
"I really thought he was going to win today. He was doing so well. I just feel bad for (owner) Mr. (Ahmed) Zayat. The poor guy, he's been tortured on this Triple Crown. Turning for home, I knew we had the horse to do it and that horse snuck up on him there. He's still a young horse, still learning how to run. It's over. When you get beat, you get beat."
The talented runner-up, who was second in the Grade 3 Derby Trial and fourth behind Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero I'll Have Another in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, had about two lengths to spare over Atigun. That one swung wide rounding the turn and put in a game run on the outside to take third over Street Life.
"(Jockey Mike Smith) will probably take a lot of heat for (letting Union Rags up the rail)," Baffert added. "It's a jockey thing. He didn't want to give up the rail. But you know what, he did a tremendous job. The outside horse had that horse trapped. Johnny (Velazquez), you have to give him credit. He was patient and he just waited. He knew sometimes that happens in these big races."
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