In a thrilling stretch duel, Union Rags won Saturday’s $1,000,000 Grade 1 Belmont Stakes over Bob Baffert’s Paynter. A crowd of 85,811 were in attendance at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York to witness the race which should have seen a Triple Crown attempt by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another. However, tendonitis was discovered in the colt’s left front tendon Friday morning resulting in trainer’s Doug O’Neil’s decision to scratch him from the race. A few hours later, O’Neil and owner J. Paul Reddam announced that I’ll Have Another would be retired from racing altogether.
With I’ll Have Another out of the Belmont, Michael Matz’s Union Rags and Dale Romans’ Dullahan began to take the spotlight, but it was Union Rags who would keep it. Dullahan finished in seventh, beaten nearly 12 lengths.
Under jockey John Velazquez, who replaced jockey Julien Leparoux, Union Rags sat in fifth place for the first mile of the 1 ½ mile race while Mike Smith and Paynter took the early lead. As the field turned for home, Atigun vied briefly with Union Rags as the pair chased the front-running Paynter. In the final strides, Velasquez took Union Rags up the rail to surprise Smith and tag Paynter at the wire, taking victory by a neck. Atigun, under Leparoux, was another 1 ¾ lengths back in third.
“I knew he could do it,” said owner Phyllis Wyeth after the race. “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 [Matz] got him there.”
Velazquez took home his third Classic win and second Belmont victory, having earned his first in 2007 aboard another Rags—the filly Rags to Riches.
“All my [Classic] wins are horses that I picked up. It’s incredible,” Velazquez said. “After riding so many good horses all these years … some of the best horses I’ve been on didn’t make the Derby. I guess that’s part of the business, and I guess that’s the way it was meant for me. Some people get lucky and get a good horse.”
Trainer Matz said Sunday that one of the summer stakes for three-year-olds could be next for Union Rags, possibly the Haskell (Monmouth Park), Jim Dandy (Saratoga), or the Travers (Saratoga).
Union Rags returned $7.50, $4.20 and $3.40. Paynter paid $5.10 and $3.90 and completed the $2 exacta for $31.40. Atigun returned $10.60 and completed the $2 triple for $496. Fourth place finisher Street Life completed the $2 superfecta for $1,906. The final time for the 1 1/2 mile race was 2:30.42.
Photo: Louisville Magazine/Nicholas Karem