Updated on 06/12/2012 5:03PM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Union Rags's rail-skimming victory vindicates Matz

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Tom Keyser
Union Rags edges Paynter by a neck to win Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Back in the spring, Michael Matz, the trainer of Union Rags, envisioned that he would be going for a Triple Crown sweep in the 144th Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park. He thought that much of Union Rags. But after a traffic-filled trip in the Kentucky Derby, in which Union Rags finished seventh, Matz skipped the Preakness, and pointed for a new prize, perhaps a consolation prize, but a major prize nonetheless.

Union Rags justified Matz’s confidence in the big, strapping colt. Under a clever ride from John Velazquez, who took over for Julien Leparoux, Union Rags slipped through along the rail in the final furlong and caught pacesetting Paynter to win by a neck in a Belmont that proved thrilling despite being an anticlimactic final act to this year’s Triple Crown.

The race was gutted on Friday when I’ll Have Another, who would have been shooting for a Triple Crown bid following his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was scratched and then retired because of an injured tendon in his left front leg. That left Dullahan the favorite, with Union Rags the second choice, both at 5-2.

Despite the absence of I’ll Have Another, a raucous crowd of 85,811 turned out on a cloudy day that had infrequent, light rainfall, but yielded to partly sunny conditions near race time.

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

Union Rags paid $7.50, and combined with Redeemed, winner of Friday’s Brooklyn, for a $29.60 payoff on the Brooklyn-Belmont double. Union Rags covered 1 1/2 miles in 2:30.42, the amount of time it took Matz to finally get some satisfaction from this year’s Triple Crown.

“We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential,” Matz said. “We gave him four races as a 2-year-old and gave him a rest, and had a good plan and never missed a beat.

“His first race,” Matz said, referring to a winning 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, “couldn’t have been any easier. But he got in trouble in his second race and his third,” Matz said, referring to the Florida Derby and then the Kentucky Derby. “We did think this horse could win the Triple Crown, but we got sidetracked a little bit.”

In the Belmont, Union Rags sat fifth in the early going in the 11-horse field, advanced to third on the far turn, then came up the rail to prevail. This was his second start at Belmont Park, whose, wide, sweeping turns seem to suit the long-striding colt. He won the Champagne Stakes here last year.

“I do really think this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, he is one of the best 3-year-olds of this crop,” Matz said. “Whether he could have done something against I’ll Have Another, I don’t know, but it sure would have been fun to see.”

[BELMONT DAY: Full stakes results and video replays]

Atigun finished third, 1 3/4 lengths behind Paynter, but he was a major factor in the outcome. Atigun, whom Leparoux rode, loomed up outside Paynter at mid-stretch, forcing jockey Mike Smith, on Paynter, to angle off the rail to parry that attack. But Velazquez had cleverly positioned himself on Union Rags right behind Smith and Paynter, and he was quick to seize the opening, which surprised Smith.

“If I wouldn’t have let him through, I’d have liked to have seen the outcome,” said Smith, who was upset with himself for letting Union Rags through.

Velazquez, though, thought Smith was in a no-win spot. He had to pay attention to Atigun, since he was the first threat at mid-stretch.

“He could not see me,” said Velazquez, who also won the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches. “Mike had to drift outside to go to the next horse. I looked like a genius I guess.

“When the hole opened up, he got through, he put up a good fight. You have to give it all to the horse,” Velazquez said, crediting Union Rags. “I tried to do something, the horse did something when he needed to.”

Smith and Paynter’s trainer, Bob Baffert, as well as owner Ahmed Zayat, had an excruciating Triple Crown. They finished second in the Derby and Preakness with Bodemeister prior to the second with Paynter in the Belmont.

“Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?” Baffert said.

Leparoux admitted he had “mixed emotions” over the outcome. He was widely criticized for Union Rags’s poor start in the Derby, but maintained Saturday that the chaos of the Derby’s 20-horse field was as much to blame as anything for the disappointing outcome.

“It’s the Derby,” he said.

“I’m happy for the connections,” he added, tipping his cap to Union Rags.

The biggest disappointment of the race was Dullahan, who finished seventh. His jockey, Javier Castellano, said Dullahan did not care for the deep, sandy surface. “I had no horse,” Castellano said. Like Union Rags, Dullahan ran in the Derby – he was third – then skipped the Preakness.

Union Rags was bred by Phyllis Wyeth, wife of the famed American painter Jamie Wyeth, son of another famous painter, Andrew Wyeth. She parted with Union Rags as a yearling at a sale, but bought him back months later at a 2-year-old sale.

“I had a dream,” Wyeth said. “I knew he would be a good horse, and I knew Michael could do it. He made my dream come true.”

Said Matz: “I’m just glad for Phyllis and the horse that we got a chance to see the real Union Rags.”

The Grade 1 Belmont had a purse of $1 million, with $600,000 going to Wyeth, who races as Chadds Ford Stable. Union Rags has now won five times in eight starts, and has earned $1,798,800.

This was the second Triple Crown race win for Matz, who won the 2006 Derby with Barbaro. He is often asked to compare Union Rags with Barbaro, but thinks that is an impossible assignment.

“They’re both great. It’s hard to compare things like that,” Matz said. “Obviously Barbaro was a great horse - to win your first Triple Crown race, that couldn’t have been more fulfilling. And to come back with a horse like this and win the Belmont, I feel very fortunate to have two horses like this.”

As exciting as this race was, though, it still will go down in history for both the win by Union Rags and the absence of I’ll Have Another.

I’ll Have Another still took part in the Belmont festivities. He came to the paddock an hour before the Belmont, and then was taken to the winner’s circle, where he was ceremonially unsaddled for the final time.

Jairo Alberto Montaña Cruz More than 1 year ago
muy facil determinar que UNION RAGS seria el ganador en belmont para mi era linea de carrera osea fijo imperdible asi participara I´´ll HAVE ANOTHER por que?en kentuky derby desconto 17 cuerpos y si es mas metros pasa de largo y gana y en belmont mas distancia era logico ganador. muy lamentable que otro año mas de espera pera ver un nuevo triple coronado sera en 2013?
tonyvolu More than 1 year ago
bravo union rags and thank you for putting velasquez on this great horse .julian you need gumption to be a champ .
R. Martin More than 1 year ago
Tony: Gumption only helps if you have riding skills above that of an apprentice. But if, as is the opinion of many top trainers, and surely mine, you are basically Smoke and Mirrors in ability you won't get a chance to show gumption too often. That is JRL in my opinion, as a bettor. JRL=Kiss of Death Bet Prop!
paul cervenan More than 1 year ago
You're right on there, you would NEVER have or will see Leper take the rail route like Johnny V did. If Matz put him up from the beginning he would have had all of us a Triple Crown. Next will be the Haskell for fun ! All the horse (UR) needed was a jock who has some guts, and is a race rider, not a pompus jackwagon with absolutely no ability to engage.
R. Martin More than 1 year ago
Paul: I would rate Leparoux as possibly, in my opinion, the most overrated jockey in the Universe today. I call him, alternately, "the wealth destroyer" or "wrong-way Lep". I think he would fit nicely at Mountaineer Park. There he would fit behind D.L.Parker & O.M.Pereira. Then again, I may be unfair to T.D.Houghton & L.R.Rivera.
Charles Myers More than 1 year ago
your a fool a sloooow time for the belmont on a fast track IHA would have beat rags all 3x even if he was toting shoemaker.......he is such a clearly better horse. rags beat also rans from derby and new horses that were not up to snuff period. paynter went 49 half and buc 14 for 6f and a bad ride from smith racing 101 dont givem the rail makem go around and he should have known the 4 wasnt going to pass him, he couldnt pull even for over a 100 yards.with all that rags was more than 6 seconds bhind the great one......you count the lengths did they even give him a 100 beyer...bet dog and trinni got over a 100 for their runs
robert More than 1 year ago
Go have what IHA is having and cry about what Mike Smith did or didn't do. Rags sat and pounced like all great rateable horses do and beat Paynter to the wire that's all he needed to do. No more no less. If Paynter had gone slower all the better for Rags patience is a virtue is it not. Right now everything your seeing seems to be as clear as mud. Rags will be far superior when all is said and done.
David Voelker More than 1 year ago
Wait I thought Rags could not possibly run a mile & one half. Just maybe he gets his distance genes from his dam's side. Second dam won a stakes at one & one half mile.
R. Martin More than 1 year ago
IF Union Rags could finish the rest of 2012 without a defeat it would be proper to name U.R. and not I.H.A as the best 3 year old of 2012. IHA proved unsound (tendons), has a 5 month physical season, and was clouded in controversy. Union Rags, contrariwise,... IF he wins all his 2012 remaining races, will prove that being voted the best 2 year old of 2011 was no fluke.
R. Martin More than 1 year ago
Best move Mr. Matz made was dumping inept Leparoux, and sure enough, under competent rider John Velasquez, Union Rags prevailed. I am fairly certain the connections of both Atigun and particularly Painter will not be seeking the (riding?) services of Leparoux. In my opinion, when a rider is more interested in revenge than raceriding such a rider should be reprimanded.
Larry Rudolph More than 1 year ago
Sorry Tom, I had 12 dollars on the Belmont. That was all the race was worth. Beyers should be a big thing in everyones betting. You do not have to care about race times when using Beyers. However you need to know how to use Beyers in your handicapping which obviously you do not. Based on reading your writing I have forgotten more about handicapping than you know. The idea is to win consistently and Beyers create consistency in handicapping. Longshots will always win but longshots should not be the basis for handicapping except for perrenial losers. You might be a member of that club. I happen to know Andy Beyer and before his numbers became public he made a fortune gambling using his numbers as a basis for his picks. I do not win all the time but I made big money on Super Saver, Big Brown , Barbaro and Funny Cide. Of course i would never have Mine that Bird or Giacomo and I had Bodemeister this year. Notice that even though you know nothing about handicapping I do not call you names. I feel sorry for you because you probably spend a lot of time at the ATM
David Voelker More than 1 year ago
Larry, don't always rely solely on Beyers. Sometimes you can bet against Beyer's numbers & look at the race time to see the upper potention of each horse. That's what I do, but Beyers is a good tool too.
Tom Borgia More than 1 year ago
thank you T. cook .,sounds like someone must have lost his butt on rags winning, right larry, red nose rudolph, who cares what the beyer was , like i said the fastest beyer doesnt always win , maybe u should call Andy Beyer , an find out y he even puts out those #s , i guess beyers a big thing in your betting , thats if u bet , if u do u must lose quite offen . whats your reason for all these long shots winning the derby , and all other types of races , u think they have high beyers , maybe u need a diff way to handicap, before u end up on the bridge, .lol!!!!!
Larry Rudolph More than 1 year ago
Olivia, you have to know how to use beyer figures in handicapping. A 106 beyer at a mile and a sixteenth is not a 106 beyar at one and a half miles. Beyers tend to decrease as horses run further. You have to compare beyers at the same distance and then account for pedigree when the distances increase or decrease. Class and pace also figure when picking a horse. Paynter had the pace in his corner but not the class or ability to keep his speed at the distance. Rags was the class horse in this pathetic group.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Testing., All my replies further down the page are showing me as Anonymous, but the site shows me as being logged in. So one last test before I report to the webmaster. Sorry for the inconvenience, folks.
Larry Rudolph More than 1 year ago
Thomas, hate to educate you but until Paynter wins a stakes he is an allowance horse. Second in this Belmont does not flatter him. He ran an allowance beyer number. If Paynter was Bafferts best horse why was he in the derby trial instead of the derby?
Ronnie Malo Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
He was a tad late at starting his career. He just broke his maiden in March. Then was thrown to the wolves in the SA Derby and held his own finishing ahead of Hollywood Fut winner Liason. and 4th behind IHA. Lost by a head to a horse that should've been 2 yo champ in the Belmont. Its obvious you can't tell a stakes horse if it bit you on the backside. When this horse does win its first stake race, you'll be ripping your tickets like most doubters of this horse.