06/03/2012 12:16PM

2012 Belmont Stakes: Union Rags impresses Velazquez on Sunday with powerful work at Fair Hill

Maggie Kimmitt
Union Rags and John Velazquez work alongside Roddickton at Fair Hill on Sunday. Union Rags went five furlongs in 58.50, impressing Velazquez.

ELKTON, Md. - As John Velazquez galloped a strong Union Rags through the stretch of the near-empty Fair Hill training center dirt track Sunday morning, he thought to himself ‘Oh my God, what is this thing?’ ”

About a minute later he found out. Sitting on Union Rags for the first time, Velazquez guided the powerhouse 3-year-old through a five-furlong workout that Daily Racing Form timed in 58.50 seconds. Michael Matz, the trainer of Union Rags, caught him in 59 seconds. Matz was aboard a stable pony on the far turn.

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

Whether from a time standpoint or a visual perspective, the work - conducted under bright blue skies and over a freshly harrowed surface - was most impressive and served to confirm Union Rags as a legitimate threat to I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown hopes in next Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.

Velazquez, who is replacing Julien Leparoux in the irons, drove from Long Island to Fair Hill Saturday night after the races at Belmont Park. Velazquez worked a horse for trainer Graham Motion earlier in the morning at Fair Hill - where conditions were pristine - and then climbed aboard Union Rags at around 8:45 a.m.

After a couple of tours of the shed row, Union Rags and Velazquez followed Matz out to the freshly manicured main track. Velazquez and workmate Roddickton, a 6-year-old four-time winner with exercise rider Peter Brette aboard, came on the track at the three-quarter-pole gap and backed up to the middle of the far turn of the track.

After turning around, Velazquez kept Union Rags galloping behind Brette and Roddickton as they came through the stretch and around the first turn.

At the five-furlong pole, Roddickton broke off about 1 1/2 lengths in front of Union Rags, who was being held snugly by Velazquez. Union Rags went in his first eighth in 11.85 seconds, the quarter in 23.41 and three furlongs in 34.68 seconds while still following Roddickton.

At the quarter pole, Velazquez eased Union Rags to the outside of Roddickton and at the eighth pole Union Rags left his workmate. He got his final quarter in 23.82 seconds - finishing about four lengths in front at the wire - and galloped out six furlongs in 1:12.38.

“Very nice, very impressive,” Velazquez said. “Thankfully, I didn’t let him out too soon. He would’ve gone by the horse very easy. I waited with him till the quarter pole, eased out a little bit from behind him, and at the eighth pole I just gave him his head and he was gone. I didn’t have to ask him for anything. He did it by himself.”

Velazquez, who won 2007 Belmont aboard the filly Rags to Riches, said he had been an admirer of Union Rags since last year when he won the Saratoga Special and Champagne, the latter at Belmont Park.

When Matz was looking for a rider for Union Rags after regular rider Javier Castellano gave him up in February, Velazquez couldn’t commit because he was scheduled to ride Animal Kingdom in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31, the same day as the Florida Derby.

“Maybe it works out for the best and we get it done for the Belmont,” Velazquez said. “If he comes back to the [Champagne] in the Belmont, he’s going to be really tough to beat.”

Matz raised an eyebrow when told the workout time, but as he watched Union Rags cool out he seemed quite content with how the horse was recovering from the move.

“I thought he went nice, seems like he came back fine,” Matz said. “I’m glad Johnny made the effort to come down and sit on him. Johnny seemed to like him. He seemed to do that easy enough.”

After getting his bath, Union Rags reared up twice as his groom led him back towards the barn.
Shaking his head, Matz said, “Maybe we ought to do that again.”