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Belmont win puts Union Rags in conversation for horse of year

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2012

ELMONT, N.Y. — Phyllis Wyeth had a dream her horse, Union Rags, would win the Belmont Stakes, one that he fulfilled Saturday evening.

But Wyeth's dream goes well beyond the Triple Crown and Union Rags capturing a race that will be remembered more for I'll Have Another's inability to compete than a thrilling stretch drive to the wire. The 71-year-old bound to a motorized scooter had sold Union Rags for $145,000 and then realized seller's remorse to get him back for $390,000.

On Saturday, his finishing first in a million-dollar race confirmed Wyeth's belief and trainer Michael Matz's confidence that this horse could prove he's a champion.

"We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential when we trained him," Matz said. "I do really think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, he is one of the best 3-year-olds of this crop. And whether he could have done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know, but it sure would have been fun to see."

It's impossible to know if I'll Have Another would have beaten Union Rags to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 after a tendon injury in his left front leg forced his retirement. But with a chance to show what so many saw in Union Rags as a 2-year-old prodigy, he provided a glimpse of a potential horse of the year.

"I think it puts Union Rags in the picture for an Eclipse Award, I would think," said Dale Romans, trainer of beaten favorite Dullahan. "There's a lot of year left, and with I'll Have Another out, it's definitely in his own hands."

Saturday evening at Belmont Park, it was in Johnny Velazquez's hands. This was his first race aboard Union Rags, replacing Julien Leparoux following a lackluster performance in the Kentucky Derby.

No jockey knows the big sandy dirt track at Belmont better than Velazquez, who guided Union Rags through at the rail and past Paynter to earn the trip to the winner's circle.

"Nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today, I can tell you that," Wyeth said. "That was unbelievable. He just said 'Move over, I'm coming.' He believed in the horse."

That belief began well before the 11th race Saturday in front of the grandstand. Velazquez talked extensively last winter about riding Union Rags, but a commitment in Dubai to last year's Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, prevented it.

Finally getting the chance, Velazquez brought out the best in the colt.

"I said, 'Well, if we can get on Union Rags, it would be perfect.' ... I think that would be the horse of the future," he said Saturday. "We've been being looking for a long time if the opportunity would come up for me to ride the horse, I guess it worked out good for me today."

And well into the future if Union Rags keeps this up. Matz didn't have a plan for the rest of year, just a trip back to Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., on Sunday. The Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course in August and the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park in November could be chances to build off the Belmont.

But Union Rags already is a dream come true for his owner and trainer. After reacquiring the horse, Wyeth handed Matz a yellow piece of paper and told him she wanted him to train Union Rags. That arrangement worked out well.

"I've had horses for Phyllis before, not obviously as good as this one," Matz said. "She always said I'm going to have a good one one of these days, so I think she kept her promise."

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