Union Rags to riches at Belmont
Union Rags (right), with jockey John Velazquez, wins the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., June 9, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/Reuters)
Rags to redemption.
Much maligned after two losses as a result of poor trips and having to prove himself against those pedigree know-it-alls who couldn't see him getting a mile-and-a-half, Union Rags displayed the talent he showed as a 2-year-old, winning the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
A crowd of over 85,000 came to Belmont Park, disappointed by Friday's scratching of I'll Have Another, thus denying racing of its first triple-crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, were treated to a classic piece of riding by jockey John Velazquez who guided Union Rags home when it looked for a brief moment like the path to victory would again be closed off.
"John rode a brilliant race today," trainer Michael Matz said. "And whether he got there or not he still rode a brilliant race."
In the Kentucky Derby and in the Florida Derby before that, Union Rags was ridden by Julien Leparoux, who had troubled trips in both starts.
Breaking from Post 3 in the 11-horse field, Union Rags settled into fifth behind pace-setter Paynter. Looking comfortable through the first half of the race, Velazquez kept him on the inside through the final turn though the presence of two outside horses didn't give him much choice.
In the stretch, Union Rags had to wait a bit for Paynter to drift a couple of feet off the rail. Once that happened around the eighth pole, he brought Union Rags through to grab the lead seven strides from the wire and win by a neck. Paynter finished second, giving trainer Bob Baffert the second-place finisher in all three triple-crown races as Bodemeister was second in the first two legs. Longshot Atigun, ridden by Leparoux was third. Dullahan, made a slight favourite over Union Rags, finished seventh.
"The big concern was that we wanted to break out of there," Velazquez said. "He did everything really well behind horses."
"In the stretch it wasn't my intention to go in there, but there were horses on the outside so I thought I'd rather stay here and hope for the hole to open."
Mike Smith aboard Paynter, blamed himself for the loss.
"I'm such a perfectionist," he said. "Union Rags shouldn't have gotten through on me."
A son of Dixie Union, who hadn't previously been able to produce a winner going beyond a mile and an eighth, Union Rags burst onto the spotlight with wins in the Saratoga Special and Champagne Stakes as a 2-year-old. He was beaten by Hansen as the favourite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Matz had tried to get Velazquez to commit to Union Rags for three races before the Florida Derby but he was scheduled to ride Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Derby winner in the Dubai World Cup the same day.
"I talked to Michael and said, 'I can't lie to you. I'm going to ride Animal Kingdom in Dubai,' " Velazquez said. "But we had been looking at him for a long time and when the opportunity came to ride him, I took it and it worked out well."
The horse is owned by Phyllis Wyeth, who bred the horse, sold her as a yearling, but had such an affinity for the horse that she bought him back at a considerably higher price. Wyeth was very emotional in the winner's circle.
"I've had horses for Phyllis before, not as good as this one," Matz said. "She told me one day she was going to have a good one and she kept her promise."
Matz said Union Rags would return to his base in Fair Hill, Md., for a rest before embarking on a fall campaign.
GUTIERREZ TAKES IT IN STRIKE
Coming soon to Woodbine, Mario Gutierrez.
The young jockey from Mexico who rose to prominence riding I'll Have Another to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, indicated Saturday that he will be splitting his time between Woodbine and his current base in Southern California, where racing currently takes place at Hollywood Park.
Gutierrez and trainer Doug O'Neill were still in a sombre mood after Friday's announcement that I'll Have Another injured his tendon and is being retired.
The young jockey who rode for six seasons at Vancouver's Hastings Park and is currently in the process of obtaining his Canadian citizenship, took the turn of events like a pro.
"The trainer and owner made the decision for the horse," he said. "He's the one who brought us here so we try to take care of him. Before I'll Have Another, no one knew who I was. It has been an unbelievable journey."
Before he made the trip out west, though, he did ride in three races on the Belmont undercard, finishing third in one. He also took a dismount on I'll Have Another in a retirement ceremony. Plans to have the horse lead the Belmont Stakes post parade, a move that was criticized by some, was scrapped.
"We felt this would be a fitting ceremonial retirement for an incredible racehorse," O'Neill said. "There are many fans who travelled from near and far to see I'll Have Another today, and we wanted to give them a chance to send him off to retirement."
PARTY WENT ON
I'll Have Another's scratching Friday didn't keep many of the expected crowd from making the trip to Belmont Park. It's still New York's day at the races and the fans made the best of it.
The picnic went ahead in the paddock, a scene reminiscent of Saratoga, the upstate track that hosts New York racing every summer. And of course if you're a fan of fashionable hats, there were plenty to be found.
The grandstands filled up as the day went along and the reserved seats, some of which were being offered on StubHub and Craigslist for 10 times their face value on Thursday, still managed to be full.
Two horses from the triple crown trail were successful on the undercard. Teeth of the Dog, fifth in the Preakness, won the $100,000 Easy Goer and Trinniberg, 17th in the Kentucky Derby, was much better in winning the $400,000 Woody Stephens.