It was the story of the racing winter as the Kentucky Derby came into view: Phyllis Wyeth, a veteran horsewoman who had seller's remorse and the previous year had bought back Union Rags, the horse she'd bred and sold as a yearling. The son of Dixie Union had a near-championship year at 2, losing the title to Hansen in a close Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but the bandwagon was not nearly as crowded on the first Saturday in May as it had been before the horse lost the Florida Derby.
And then came the Kentucky Derby itself, where Union Rags was never a factor after a terrible start and bad racing luck. I'll Have Another won the roses and went on to Baltimore where he ran a copycat race, beating the front-running Bodemeister in the Preakness, just as he did two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs, and setting the stage for a run to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner.
That bid was cancelled at the 11th hour when tendonitis was diagnosed on the day before the 144th Belmont Stakes, and I'll Have Another was scratched, his racing career over.
Twenty-four hours later, the storyline had shifted back to the original one. At the end of the long, strange trip from Louisville, Ky., to Elmont, N.Y., there was Union Rags, in all his glory, winning the June 9 Belmont Stakes by a gutsy neck under John Velazquez, diving through a sliver of daylight along the rail in the final desperate yards of the mile and a half Belmont, snatching victory away from Paynter. The front-running colt was trainer Bob Baffert and owner Zayat Stable's stand-in for Bodemeister in this Test of the Champion. The result, however, was the same as it had been at Churchill Downs and Pimlico: their horse was passed in the cruel closing strides of an American classic.
Union Rags ran the 12 furlongs on a fast track in 2:30.42.
It was a marvelous ride by John Velazquez, who will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in two months and was winning his second Belmont Stakes, the first coming aboard the filly Rags to Riches in 2007. It was a terrific training job by Michael Matz, who in 2006 won the Kentucky Derby with Barbaro and opted to skip the Preakness after the disappointing seventh by Union Rags in the Kentucky Derby. It was the horse of a lifetime for Wyeth.
“I had a dream and I knew he would make it,” Wyeth said. “I knew he could do it. And nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today. That was unbelievable. He just said, ‘Move over, I'm coming.'”
Velazquez was riding Union Rags for the first time, replacing Julien Leparoux, who lost his previous two starts aboard the colt. Leparoux wound up finishing third aboard longshot Atigun in the Belmont. Completing the order of finish was Street Life, Five Sixteen, Unstoppable U, Dullahan (the 5-2 favorite), My Adonis, Ravelo's Boy, Optimizer, and Guyana Star Dweej, who was eased.
“I thought he rode a brilliant race,” Matz said of Velazquez. “Whether he got up there or he didn't, I thought he ran a great race.
“I'm just glad for Phyllis and the horse,” Matz said. “We finally got to see the real Union Rags. … We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential.”
Paynter set all the fractions in the Belmont – :23.72 for the opening quarter mile, :49.23 for the half mile, 1:14.72 for six furlongs, 1:38.85 for a mile, and 2:04.39 for a mile and a quarter. Longshot Unstoppable U was the early chaser, with Optimizer closer than expected in third and My Adonis fourth. Union Rags was in a good spot going into the first turn, then saved ground thereafter along the rail while in fourth or fifth.
Coming out of the far turn, Paynter still was galloping along on the lead, but suddenly Atigun made a wide bid while Velazquez sat patiently toward the inside awaiting room. When daylight opened in the final furlong, he drove through and went on to the narrow victory. Dullahan, the slight 5-2 favorite ahead of Union Rags, got shuffled back and was never a factor.
This was the Union Rags that easily won the first three starts of his career, including the Grade 2 Saratoga Special at Saratoga and the G1 Champagne at Belmont Park. He lost the Eclipse Award when coming up a head short of Hansen in the Breeders' Cup, then was given some time off to point for the Triple Crown.
Union Rags came back with an overpowering victory in the G2 Fountain of Youth in late February, but disappointed in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, where he was the second wagering choice to Bodemeister. Following the Derby, Matz sent Union Rags back to his stable at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland, where the colt had a couple of sharp breezes – one of them under Velazquez – then shipped to New York in time to meet the requirements of the newly imposed detention barn on Wednesday.
Matz said it was too early to say where Union Rags might run next.
Union Rags was produced from Tempo, a mare by Gone West. It was to be Tempo's last foal, as she'd had complications in previous foalings. Gone West and Devil's Bag, among many others, raced for Wyeth's late parents, James and Alice du Pont Mills, who introduced her to racing. Wyeth rode steeplechase horses during her youth, but her riding days ended after an automobile accident that eventually led to her being confined to a wheelchair.
Union Rags was sold by Paramount Sales, agent for Wyeth, for $145,000 at the 2010 Saratoga yearling sale. Buyer IEAH stable consigned the colt with Eddie Woods at the 2011 Fasig-Tipton Florida sale of 2-year-olds in training. Wyeth asked her friend, bloodstock agent Russell Jones, to try and buy the colt back if the price was right.
“I called her up and said there's some buzz about the horse,” Jones recalled. “She asked me how much it would take to get him and I said from what I was hearing it would be in the mid-to-upper $300,000 range. She said to bid up to $390,000, and that's exactly what we got him for.”
Matz said Jones handed him the ticket and said, “Phyllis would like you train him for her.”
The Belmont crowd of 85,811 was the sixth largest ever and the biggest when no Triple Crown was on the line. Of course, just over 24 hours earlier, I'll Have Another was in the starting field with a chance to end the 34-year Triple Crown drought dating back to 1978 when Affirmed beat Alydar in their famous duels.
Instead of competing in the Belmont, Paul and Zillah Reddam's Flower Alley colt was greeted respectfully by the Belmont fans in a retirement ceremony in the winner's circle that included trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez. A short time later, the torch was passed to Union Rags.
Post-race quotes from connections of Belmont runners, courtesy NYRA media office
Phyllis Wyeth, winning owner of Union Rags (No. 3): “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. It was my dream and he made it come true today. 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.”
Michael Matz, winning trainer of Union Rags (No. 3): “I'm just glad for Phyllis and the horse, we just got to see the real Union Rags.”
John Velazquez, winning jockey aboard Union Rags (No. 3): “He just worked so unbelievable, I was just hoping he could put that work into this race and he did. 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. It's incredible [to win this race for trainer Michael Matz]. They liked this horse for so long, and for him to finally rise up to the top again, I'm very, very happy for him.”
Bob Baffert, trainer of runner-up Paynter (No. 9): “Is there a Triple Crown for seconds? I need a Triple Crown for seconds. I really thought he was going to win today. He was doing so well. I just feel bad for [owner] Mr. [Ahmed] Zayat. The poor guy, he's been tortured on this Triple Crown. Turning for home, I knew we had the horse to do it and that horse snuck up on him there. He's still a young horse, still learning how to run. It's over. When you get beat, you get beat.”
“[Jockey Mike Smith] will probably take a lot of heat for [letting Union Rags up the rail]. It's a jockey thing. He didn't want to give up the rail. But you know what, he did a tremendous job. The outside horse had that horse trapped. Johnny [Velazquez], you have to give him credit. He was patient and he just waited. He knew sometimes that happens in these big races.”
“There were no excuses. The first quarter was a little quick, but he had to use him a little bit to get him over because we wanted to get him on the lead and shut down the [No. 2] horse [Unstoppable U] immediately, because I figured he was in there as a rabbit for the other horse [Atigun]. Once he did that, he slowed them down and was in a perfect spot. He did all I could ask for. I had him ready. The crew did a great job, Jimmy Barnes and everybody. We had him ready, and we really thought today we were going to get it done. Unfortunately, we came up short, but we got beat by a nice horse.”
“He's a really good horse. I really like this horse a lot. I wanted to win one of these races so badly, I'm telling you. My crew deserves it more than anything; they work so hard. And Mr. Zayat, he needed to win one of these. Poor guy. He really deserved it. It's a shame. It looked like we had it. It looked like it was ours. I really felt like I was going to win the Belmont. It was snatched away again.”
“We were always really high on this horse. It just took him a little bit longer to come around. The horse is really green. He ran a hell of a race.”
“We'll probably look at the Travers, something at Saratoga, something like that.”
Mike Smith, rider of runner-up Paynter (No. 9): “He ran tremendous. I'm such a perfectionist. [Union Rags] just shouldn't have gotten through on me. 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.”
Ahmed Zayat, owner of runner-up Paynter (No. 9): “Heartbreaking defeat. A heartbreaking defeat. He ran his guts out. It's just his fourth race. What do they call that race, the ‘Test of the Champion?' To go a mile and a half the way he did, in only his fourth race, I am very lucky to have him. I'm very disappointed we opened the rail for [Union Rags].”
“Not only that, today Justin Phillip [second in the Grade 2, $400,000 Woody Stephens] was winning for fun in crazy numbers and got beat. Sometimes when you run a lot of seconds, they say you tripped, or you got lucky. But my horses are showing up and running big. Somehow we are not able to close the deal.”
Ken McPeek, trainer third-place finisher Atigun (No. 4), sixth-place finisher Unstoppable U (No. 2): “Both horses were in contention turning for home, but the gray horse [Unstoppable U] needed the race. He didn't have enough bottom under him. Atigun, he ran super. I was real pleased. He's just maturing; he's figured it out. He knows when to kick. Mr. Anthony [John Ed Anthony, Shortleaf Stable Inc.] is real happy. He's a good man, and he's good for the business.”
Julien Leparoux, jockey aboard third-place finisher Atigun (No. 4): “It was a very good race. There was a clean race for everybody, so that's very important. For us, as the jockeys, for the people watching the race, it's great to see a clean race. I hope everybody had fun today. We had a good trip. We stayed inside most of the trip. I could get him out around the turn, I thought I had a good chance to win, he made a nice move. He ran a big race, so that was good.”
Chad Brown, trainer of fourth-place finisher Street Life (No. 1): “He was in the right spot and that is where the horse wanted to be. He made a run, and he was good enough to get up to be fourth, but that was probably was as good as it was going to be today. He's a horse that needs some pace to run at and I thought that with the blinkers on he would lay a little closer. I think he is more focused with them on, but he is a horse that comes from behind that needs some pace. In a mile and a half race we really didn't get the pace that we needed to make the big run. We'll probably keep him at a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter.”
Dale Romans, trainer of beaten favorite and seventh-place finisher Dullahan (No. 5): “He said he felt comfortable all around the backside. He felt he was relaxing in the right spot. Turning for home he just got to spinning his wheels. He said the track was pretty deep and cuppy. I don't know. The race unfolded like it looked on paper to me. Paynter ran a big race, they all ran big, Union Rags ran big; we just didn't have a finishing kick. This is a good horse, a very good horse. I was sure he was going to run a really big one. It's disappointing.”
Was it the track?: “I'm not going to make excuses for him. I said all along I thought he could handle the dirt. I think it puts Union Rags in the picture for an Eclipse Award, I would think. There's a lot of year left, and with I'll Have Another out, it's definitely in his own hands.”
Javier Castellano, rider of beaten favorite and seventh-place finisher Dullahan (No. 5): “I don't think he really liked the track today. He's the type of horse who likes the turf or Polytrack more. The track was a little deep today and he kind of struggled a little bit. He was in a great position and not too far back. I was right in mid pack which is right where I wanted to be. I was in a full drive and he never got a hold of the track. He never gave me the power and kick like he did at Churchill Downs [in the Kentucky Derby]. He was spinning his wheels.”
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