Updated on 06/12/2012 4:03PM

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.