Union Rags , closing with urgency along the rail under John Velazquez, got up in the final couple of strides to win a heart-pounding finish over Paynter by a short neck in the 2012 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 9 (VIDEO).
The lack of a Triple Crown quest by I'll Have Another , scratched on the eve of the race with a tendon injury, took much of the luster off the 144th renewal of the Belmont. But Paynter, who led the race from the outset, and Union Rags put on a great show in the $1 million event anyway before 85,811 at Belmont Park. The crowd was the biggest for a non-Triple Crown edition of the Belmont.
Velazquez, riding Union Rags for the first time, brought the colt into contention past mid-stretch and the son of Dixie Union responded in tight quarters along the rail to edge a determined but weakening Paynter as they reached the wire.
Michael Matz trains the winning Kentucky homebred for Phyllis Wyeth's Chadds Ford Stable. The bay colt was a troubled seventh in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands! (gr. I) in his last start May 5. He sat out the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) win of I'll Have Another and returned to Belmont as a fresh horse.
Paynter's defeat was a third disappointment for trainer Bob Baffert and Ahmed Zayat in this year's Triple Crown series. The Hall of Fame trainer lost both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness (gr. I) with Zayat's Bodemeister , who was caught late in both races by I'll Have Another.
“It looked like we had it,” said Baffert. “It looked like it was ours. I really felt like I was going to win the Belmont. It was snatched away again.”
There was some irony in that since it was Juien Leparoux, riding Atigun, whom Velazquez replaced as the rider of Union Rags. And It was Leparoux, keeping Union Rags pinned down on the rail in the stretch run as they chased Paynter, that forced Velazquez to remain on the inside.
“I waited for a hole to open up and I got lucky,” said Velazquez. “The horse did it all.”
The final time for the 1 1/2-mile event was a slow 2:30.42 over a fast track.
Under equal weights of 126 pounds, Union Rags paid $7.50, $4.20, $3.40. Zayat Stables' Paynter, making his fifth start since his debut in February, returned $5.10 and $3.90 while completing a $31.40 exacta. Shortleaf Stables's Atigun, in a big effort under Leparoux for trainer Ken McPeek, paid $10.60 to show.
Paynter, leaving from post 9, outbroke the field to lead at the first quarter mark by one length over Unstoppable U and Optimizer . My Adonis was next on the outside, with Union Rags settling fifth along the inside.
Union Rags continued to stalk as Paynter slowed the pace to :49.23 for the half-mile, 1:14.72 for six furlongs, and 1:38.85 for the mile. Paynter reached the quarter pole in 2:04.39 with Union Rags taking second by a head over Atigun as the stubborn Unstoppable U began to tire.
Paynter still led by a length at mid-stretch but Union Rags, under strong right-handed urging from Velazquez, kept coming along the rail to prevail.
Dullahan, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, raced near the rear of the pack for the opening mile. Donegal Racing's son of Even the Score rallied only mildly to finish seventh.
“Paynter ran a big race, they all ran big. Union Rags ran big; we just didn’t have a finishing kick,” said Dale Romans, trainer of the beaten favorite. “I think it puts Union Rags in the picture for an Eclipse Award. There’s a lot of year left, and with I’ll Have Another out, it’s definitely in his own hands.”
The victory was the second in the Belmont Stakes for Velazquez, who also won the race in 2007 with Rags to Riches.
Jockey Mike Smith, who rode Paynter, blamed himself for the loss, saying he should not have left the rail open for Velazquez and Union Rags to exploit.
“(Union Rags) just shouldn’t have gotten through on me,” Smith said. “I’d like to see what the outcome would have been if he wouldn’t have. I haven’t had the chance (to talk to Bob Baffert). I’m sure he doesn’t want to speak to me right now.”
Wyeth bought Union Rags back at auction for $390,000 in February 2011 after selling him as a yearling for $145,000. She told NBC the reason she did it was, "I knew. I had a dream. I knew he would make it. I only have that racehorse and half of another, a claimer. And I knew Michael could do it with him.
"It was my dream and he made it come true today," she added. "He and Johnny. 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.”
Union Rags is out of Wyeth's Gone West mare Tempo.
Velazquez, after Union Rags breezed five furlongs in :59 flat at the Fair Hill training center June 3, said he knew before the race that he had something special.
"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."
After winning the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park in February, Union Rags disappointed in the Florida Derby (gr. I) when finishing third as the 2-5 favorite.
In the Kentucky Derby, Union Rags found immediate trouble, being squeezed at the start and taking up. He was 18th in the 20-horse field early and did not find his best stride until it was far too late. He finished 7 1/2 lengths behind I'll Have Another.
As a 2-year-old, Union Rags was the favorite to become the juvenile champion after his 5 1/4-length romp in the Champagne. His head loss to Hansen in the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr I), however, cost him the title.
Matz, who won the Kentucky Derby previously with Barbaro, said, “We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential. When we trained him, we gave him four races as a 2-year-old and gave him a rest and had a good plan. He never missed a beat. His first race (this year) couldn’t have been any easier. He had trouble in his second race and his third race.
"I do really think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, is one of the best 3-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 earned $600,000 as he pushed his career mark to 5-1-1 in eight starts. He has banked $1,798,800.
Street Life was 5 1/2 lengths farther back in fourth, followed by Five Sixteen, Unstoppable U, Dullahan, My Adonis,Ravelo's Boy, and Optimizer. Guyana Star Dweejlost contact with the field after a mile and was eased.