Union Rags just gets up to win Belmont thriller

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By Nicholas Godfrey in New York
Racing Post

Union Rags and jockey Javier Castellano win the Gr I Champagne at Belmont Park 10/8/11

Belmont Park: Belmont Stakes (Grade 1) 1m4f, dirt, 3yo

FOR so long burdened with a huge reputation, Union Rags (Michael Matz/John Velazquez) finally came good with a determined victory in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.

Although there was no Triple Crown on the line after I’ll Have Another was scratched the day before the race, a crowd of 85,811 were rewarded for still turning up at the ‘Big Sandy’ with a thriller as Union Rags was driven up the rail to take the New York Classic by a neck over the front-running Paynter. Outsider Atigun took third.

The result represented another agonising defeat for trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith after remarkably similar outcomes with Bodemeister, collared by I’ll Have Another in the final furlong of the previous two legs of the Triple Crown.

Not for the first time, Smith was left blaming himself for allowing Union Rags to get up on his inside.

Union Rags, who stopped the clock in a slow 2m30.42s, was sent off 11-4 second favourite behind Kentucky Derby third Dullahan, who seriously fluffed his lines in the Belmont in finishing a dismal seventh as 5-2 market choice.

Winning trainer Michael Matz, 61, is best known for the exploits of the ill-fated Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2006.

Matz said before Saturday’s Classic that all he was hoping for was a clean trip after a series of troubled passages – including in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Florida Derby and, crucially, at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, when Union Rags lost all chance as he stumbled at the gate before finishing seventh.

Julien Leparoux was jocked off for the Belmont in favour of New York-based Velazquez, who duly delivered with a rail-hugging ride – although it was touch and go that he would get a gap for the homebred son of Dixie Union, whose colours are carried by owner Phillis Wyeth’s Chadds Farm Stable.

“I’m just glad for Phyllis and the horse that we got to see the real Union Rags,” said Matz, who rode on the US equestrian team at three Olympics.

“We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential,” he added. “I do really think this horse when he has a clean trip is one of the best three-year-olds in this crowd. Whether he could have done something against I’ll Have Another I don’t know but it sure would have been fun to see.”

Connections of the runner-up Paynter, who carries the colours of Bodemeister’s owner Ahmed Salman, could have been forgiven a sense of’déjà vu after yet another close-run thing on the Classic stage.

A different pair of horses were involved in the Belmont but the script was remarkably similar to the previous two races as Smith set the pace on Paynter, with Union Rags travelling comfortably on the rail, rated nicely just off the pace at the head of the second rank.

Smith posted sensible fractions and – like Bodemeister at Churchill Downs, if not Pimlico – looked likely to score as he stretched his lead on entering the stretch, with Union Rags seemingly bottled up in behind.

However, Paynter drifted off the rail and when the hole opened up, Union Rags rallied bravely to claim the $1 million Classic.

“I was very proud of him,” said Velazquez. “Just to be home, this was my opportunity here. It was incredible – there aren’t words to describe it. They liked this horse for so long, and for him to finally rise to the top again. I’m very, very happy for him.”

Winning owner Phyllis Wyeth, who uses a wheelchair after being paralysed from the waist down in a car crash at the age of 20 in 1962, was understandably elated.

“I knew – I had a dream,” she said. “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,” she added. “It was my dream and he made it come true today. He and Johnny – nobody would’ve 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.”

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