ELMONT, N.Y. — When I'll Have Another retreated from the winner's circle Saturday afternoon, a retired champion, he left the spotlight for another horse later in the evening.
Then Union Rags seized it.
Blazing along the rail under a masterful ride from Johnny Velazquez, Union Rags made a thrilling run to chase down Paynter down the stretch to win a Belmont Stakes that will always be remembered as the race I'll Have Another couldn't take part in to chase the Triple Crown.
"We just got to see the real Union Rags," trainer Michael Matz said. "Whether he could've done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know, but it would've been fun to see."
A stretch duel between those champions would have delighted a likely record crowd at Belmont Park, but Velazquez and Union Rags provided plenty of excitement. Well after the turn, they zipped inside and just kept running. This was the "real Union Rags" because it looked like he was a long way from a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
It was potential realized after what New York Racing Association analyst Andy Serling called a "star-crossed year" for Union Rags.
"We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential when we trained him. ... He never missed a beat," 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."
It was a gritty run in the 1½-mile final leg of the Triple Crown for Union Rags, who went off as the 5-to-2 second choice in the wagering and paid $7.50 to win, $4.20 to place and $3.40 to show.
His final margin over second-place finisher Paynter was just a neck as Velazquez guided Union Rags through a tight space and right on by before the wire.
"You expect, when you do this many times, you're expecting something is going to happen," Velazquez said. "If it happens, it's brilliant. If it doesn't happen, you're a bum, basically."
Paynter's jockey, Mike Smith, was essentially calling himself that following the narrow loss. For him, trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat, it's the third second-place finish in a row in this Triple Crown season, the first two aboard Bodemeister.
"I'm proud of both horses; their efforts were magnificent," Smith said. "I'm just not too proud of myself right now."
Matz should be proud of his change from jockey Julien Leparoux to the renowned Velazquez, which paid off handsomely in the $1 million race. Velazquez called himself the "lucky one" to get this chance.
"I have to say that this horse, we've been looking at this horse for a long time. ... I think that would be the horse of the future," he said. "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."
It's working out for owner Phyllis Wyeth, too. Riding around Belmont Park in a motorized wheelchair after losing the use of her legs in a car accident at age 20, she bet on this long ago.
"I knew. I had a dream. I knew he would make it," she said. "It was my dream, and he made it come true today."
Dreams of a Triple Crown were dashed by I'll Have Another's tendon injury that made him a scratch for what would have been the biggest horse race since Big Brown's attempt in 2008.
The question will forever be asked whether I'll Have Another would have won the Belmont Stakes if healthy. Trainer Dale Romans, whose favored horse, Dullahan, finished sixth, said history was more than possible.
"Union Rags was fairly impressive today," Romans said. "But the way they ran today, it wouldn't have surprised me if we'd have had a Triple Crown winner if he had come in here at his best."
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