Chadds Ford Stable's Union Rags encountered trouble in both the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, but a jockey switch to John Velazquez and better trip on Saturday saw the Dixie Union colt capture the $1 million Belmont Stakes by a neck for trainer Michael Matz. The bay sophomore was sent off the 5-2 second choice in the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion" and stopped the clock in 2:30 2/5 over Belmont Park's fast dirt to earn just his second win of the year.
"I knew. I had a dream. I knew he would make it," said Union Rags' 71-year-old owner, Phyllis Wyeth. "I only have that racehorse and half of another, a claimer. And I knew Michael (Matz) could do it with him. It was my dream and he made it come true today. He and Johnny (Velazquez).
"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."
Wyeth bred Union Rags, but actually sold the Kentucky-bred colt for $145,000 as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale. Reconsidering and regretting that move, she bought him back, in the name of her Chadds Ford Stable, for $390,000 at Fasig-Tipton Florida last February.
"I'm just glad for Phyllis and the horse," Matz acknowledged. "We just got to see the real Union Rags."
Jockey Mike Smith sent Paynter straight to the front through splits of :23 3/5, :49 1/5, 1:14 3/5, 1:38 4/5 and 2:04 1/5 in the Belmont. Velazquez kept Union Rags down on the inside running in midpack on the backstretch, and the colt began advancing entering the turn. Still maintaining his position on the rail, the bay inched forward as Paynter left plenty of room for him to slip through and just get his neck in front on the line.
"He just worked so unbelievable, 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.
"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.
"I guess I'm the lucky one. I guess that's the only way to describe it," Velazquez remarked when asked about winning a Triple Crown race for the second year in a row aboard a pick-up mount. "I guess what is meant to be for you is meant to be for you."
Paynter gave it his best try to wire the field but just couldn't hold off the grinding rally from Union Rags, who returned $7.50, $4.20 and $3.40.
"Is there a Triple Crown for seconds? I need a Triple Crown for seconds," quipped Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who saddled Bodemeister to second in the Derby and Preakness before sending out Paynter in the Belmont.
"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."
The talented runner-up, who was second in the Grade 3 Derby Trial and fourth behind Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero I'll Have Another in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, had 1 3/4 lengths to spare over Atigun.
"(Jockey Mike Smith) will probably take a lot of heat for (letting Union Rags up the rail)," Baffert added. "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."
"He ran tremendous," a downcast Smith said. "(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."
Atigun swung wide rounding the turn and put in a game run on the outside to take third by 5 1/2 lengths over Street Life. Five Sixteen came in fifth and was followed under the wire by Unstoppable U, 5-2 favorite Dullahan, My Adonis, Ravelo's Boy, Optimizer and Guyana Star Dweej, who was eased.
"I'm not going to make excuses for him," trainer Dale Romans said of his beaten favorite, Dullahan. "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."
Some of the Belmont's luster was lost when I'll Have Another was withdrawn and retired on Friday due to a tendon issue, but that didn't stop Union Rags connections from celebrating their colt's victory. Highly touted at the beginning of the year, the bay returned from his first career loss, a head second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, to take the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes by four lengths on February 26.
Matz kept his charge at Gulfstream Park to continue preparations for the Kentucky Derby and Union Rags next showed up in the Florida Derby, where he suffered traffic problems and wound up third, 1 1/4 lengths back of the winner. He was squeezed at the start of the Run for the Roses and found himself in traffic in the rear of the field, but put in a nice rally to be seventh on the wire.
Union Rags opened his racing career with three straight easy wins, taking his maiden debut at Delaware Park before traveling to New York to add the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and Grade 1 Champagne Stakes to his resume. His record now stands at 8-5-1-1 and he's banked $1,798,800 in lifetime earnings.
"We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential when we trained him," Matz said. "We gave him four races as a two-year-old and we gave him a rest and we had a good plan. He never missed a beat. And his first race was, couldn't have been any easier. He got in trouble the second race and the third race, so, I mean, I do really think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, he is one of the best three-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.
Union Rags is out of the winning Gone West mare Tempo, making him a full brother to the stakes-placed Geefour. Union Rags is also a half-brother to the winning Tempo West, the dam of French stakes hero Vertiformer and stakes-placed War Pact.
With his second dam being Grade 2 queen Terpsichorist, Union Rags hails from the family of Grade 2 winner Satans Quick Chick and Grade 3 victress Pratella, the dam of multiple Grade 3-placed stakes scorer Angliana.
Terpsichorist is herself a full sister to English Group 2 hero Gorytus. They were produced by 1965 Irish champion juvenile filly *Glad Rags II, winner of the following year's One Thousand Guineas. Other Glad Rags descendants include classic-winning millionaire Colonial Affair, victor of the 1993 Belmont Stakes and the Grade 1 Whitney and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1994.