Union Rags Earns Riches in Thrilling Belmont Stakes

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.

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.

Velazquez brought Union Rags 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 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.

Union Rags, a close second choice behind Dullahan in the wagering at odds of 5-2, won the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) last year in his only other start at Belmont Park.

Paynter's defeat was a third disappointment for trainer Bob Baffert in this year's Triple Crown series. The Hall of Fame trainer lost both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness (gr. I) with Bodemeister, who was caught late in both races by I'll Have Another.

Atigun finished third, two lengths behind the winner, in the field of 11 for this year's Belmont. Street Life was fourth.

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, breaking 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.

Street Life was 5 1/2 lengths farther back in fourth, followed by Five Sixteen, Unstoppable U, Dullahan, My Adonis, Ravelo's Boy, Optimizer, and Guyana Star Dweej.

Paynter still led by a length at mid-stretch but Union Rags, under strong right-handed uging from Velazquez, kept coming along the rail to prevail. 

Dullahan, who raced near the rear of the pack for the opening mile, rallied only mildly to finish seventh. The victory was the second in the Belmont Stakes for Velazquez, who also won the race in 2007 with Rags to Riches. Velazquez replaced Julien Leparoux.

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, who bought Union Rags back at auction for $390,000 in February 2011 after selling him as a yearling, 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."

Union Rags is out of Wyeth's Gone West mare Tempo.

"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."

Velazquez knew in working the horse before the race 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."

Trainer Michael Matz, who won the Kentucky Derby previously with Barbaro, said, "I’m just glad for Phyllis and the horse, we just got to see the real Union Rags."

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.

Union Rags earned $600,000 as he pushed his career mark to 5-1-1 in eight starts. He has banked $1,798,800.

About the Author

Jack Shinar

Jack Shinar is a frequent contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine and is part of their Digital Media department.

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