Updated on 06/09/2012 8:20PM

2012 Belmont Stakes: Velazquez in right place at right time to pick up mount on Union Rags

Barbara D. Livingston
John Velazquez celebrates after winning the Belmont Stakes aboard Union Rags.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Traditionally, the nation’s premier jockeys and their agents would begin lining up, securing and then protecting the most coveted Triple Crown mounts from the moment the 3-year-old season begins each winter. But John Velazquez has proven over the past two seasons that a better strategy for winning Triple Crown races is simply to be available and in the right place at the right time.

For the second time in two years, Velazquez did just that. He picked up the ride aboard Animal Kingdom 24 hours before his victory in the 2011 Kentucky Derby and got the mount on Union Rags only 19 days before driving him through a narrow opening up the rail to a thrilling neck decision over Paynter in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.

“I guess I’m the lucky one, that’s the only way to describe it,” said Velazquez. “I have to say we’ve been looking at this horse for a long time. I told (agent Angel Cordero Jr.) at the beginning of the winter that if we can get on Union Rags it would be perfect; I think he will be the horse of the future.”

But when the mount on the Michael Matz-trained Union Rags first became available - when his regular rider Javier Castellano opted to stick with trainer Todd Pletcher’s Algorithms - Velazquez was already committed to another horse. It wasn't a Triple Crown candidate but his old friend Animal Kingdom, whom he was scheduled to ride in the Dubai World Cup the same day as the Florida Derby.

“We couldn’t give Michael a three-race commitment because we had to go to Dubai with Animal Kingdom,” said Velazquez.

As a result, Matz chose Julien Leparoux to replace Castellano on Union Rags for the Florida Derby and subsequently the Kentucky Derby. Ironically, Animal Kingdom never made it to Dubai due to injury, leaving Velazquez to watch the Florida Derby from his home in south Florida.

[BELMONT STAKES: Replay, chart, full DRF coverage]

“We’ve been looking at this horse for a long time and were hoping to be able to ride him if the opportunity came up,” said Velazquez. “I guess it worked out good for me today.”
Union Rags gave Velazquez his second Belmont Stakes win in 16 tries, with his first victory coming with Rags to Riches in 2007. He’d also finished second in the race on three other occasions. And his experience both in the Belmont and over the unique 1 1/2-mile Belmont Park oval were two of the reasons why Matz turned to Velazquez once he decided to replace Leparoux following Union Rags’s second  consecutive eventful trip, which came in the Kentucky Derby.

“He knows Belmont and he’s a strong rider - those were some of the things that went into the decison to pick John,” said Matz. “Whether he got up there or he didn’t today, he still rode a great race. I just told him to break, get him in a nice rhythm, and go from there. And that’s exactly what he did.”

Whether Velazquez and Cordero will use similar strategy when plotting out next year’s Triple Crown mounts, that remains to be seen.

“I guess when it’s meant to be for you, it’s just meant to be for you,” said Velazquez.