06/04/2012 5:11PM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Velazquez liking his chances with Union Rags

Maggie Kimmitt
Union Rags, with John Velazquez in the saddle, works five furlongs at the Fair Hill training center on Sunday getting set for the Belmont.

ELKTON, Md. – Going back to last summer, John Velazquez has long admired Union Rags from afar. On Sunday morning, he got up close and personal with the Grade 1-winning colt for the first time, and it served only to confirm his admiration.

Velazquez guided Union Rags through a five-furlong workout in a rapid 58.50 seconds over the dirt surface at the Fair Hill training center in preparation for Saturday’s $1 million Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. Afterward, Velazquez felt pretty good about his chances of derailing I’ll Have Another’s bid to become horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

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

“This is a very good horse,” Velazquez said. “The only thing nobody knows is the mile and a half – who’s going to handle the mile and a half?” Velazquez said. “All I can say is I’ve been watching this horse for a long time and I like him a lot. I like his chances.”

Union Rags first caught Velazquez’s eye last summer in Saratoga when he splashed his way to a 7 1/4-length victory in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special under Javier Castellano. Velazquez rode the runner-up, Stat.

In the Grade 1 Champagne in October, Union Rags overcame a difficult trip to win by 5 1/4 lengths, a race that really caught Velazquez’s attention.

“He’s going to be really tough to beat if he runs the race like that,” Velazquez said. “Hopefully, he goes up to New York and feels the same way like when he was there last year. He worked unbelievable [Sunday] so why not?”

Velazquez had the opportunity to get on Union Rags earlier this year when Castellano, chose to ride a different horse – Algorithms – in the Fountain of Youth in February. But Velazquez had committed to ride Animal Kingdom, last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31 and couldn’t give the connections of Union Rags the multi-race commitment they wanted. Animal Kingdom got injured before the World Cup and Union Rags, ridden by Julien Leparoux, finished third in the Florida Derby, which was run the same day.

“Maybe it works out for the best and we get it done for the Belmont,” Velazquez said.

Since 1997, Velazquez has ridden in six of the seven Belmont Stakes in which a horse was going for the Triple Crown. With the exception of 28-1 shot Ready’s Echo, who dead-heated for third in 2008 when Big Brown was eased in his Triple Crown bid, Velazquez’s mounts were non-factors. He doesn’t expect that to be the case this time.

“This one can get the job done definitely,” Velazquez said. “If there’s not going to be a Triple Crown, this horse is going to [stop] it.”

Union Rags stamped himself as a leading Kentucky Derby contender with a powerful four-length victory in the Fountain of Youth under Leparoux, who was riding the horse for the first time.

But in the Florida Derby, Leparoux got boxed in early and couldn’t overcome that disadvantage when he finally got out in upper stretch. He finished third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths behind Take Charge Indy.

In the Kentucky Derby, Union Rags got bumped leaving the starting gate and was allowed to settle back into 18th place. He eventually made a move down the backside and into the stretch but finished seventh, 7 1/2 lengths behind I’ll Have Another.

[I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: Derby, Preakness winner runs for Triple Crown]

“The Derby I think is a complete throwout: Bad post position, broke bad, got killed, and that’s it,” Velazquez said. “In the Florida Derby, he got blocked in there and never had a chance to run.”

It was evident soon after the Derby that Phyllis Wyeth and Michael Matz, the owner and trainer, respectively, of Union Rags were going to make a rider change. Velazquez was free after Went the Day Well, on whom he finished fourth in the Derby, ran 11th in the Preakness.

Matz said Leparoux was “unfortunate to get some bad luck. He’s a top rider, and there’s no doubt about that. At this point, right now, Johnny knows Belmont as well as anybody and we’re going to give it a try.”

Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont Stakes aboard the filly Rags to Riches, said he won’t be apologetic if his horse stops I’ll Have Another from winning the Triple Crown.

“Whether there’s a Triple Crown or not, I get paid to win, not to finish second,” Velazquez said. “I’m going to go do my job and my job is to win. Going in with this kind of horse you go in with a lot more confidence definitely.”

Lucifer More than 1 year ago
What a grand looking horse UR is. Won't see 5:1 again on this horse, ever. Let him run.
Dipak Roy More than 1 year ago
in my opinion the race will be in favour of Union Rags and Paynter, Dullahan will be short in wire, i am giving I'll Habe Another in 3rd spot,
3pac69 More than 1 year ago
Leparoux gets post position just to the outside of Union Rags. Wonder if Atigun might accidentally bump Rags out of the gate?
ART VANDALAY More than 1 year ago
union is shot already.matz got lucky with barnaro,then broke him down.his w-p-s record is putrid,considering all of his rich owners.
Grass Is Greener More than 1 year ago
I agree. The Union is kind of shot and worrisome when we see so many kids who write with such stellar grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the ability to develop proper reasoning and arguments.
Carm More than 1 year ago
Except for Temperence Hill in the mud, no closer has come from out of the sky to win the Belmont. The winner will have to be near the lead after they hit the top of the stretch or within four or five lengths of the leader.
Dipak Roy More than 1 year ago
Jazil did , come from last to win belmont stakes to beat bluegrass star in 2006, the year Barbaro won the derby.
Grass Is Greener More than 1 year ago
The key point was that to win the Belmont Stakes, you have to be at least 3rd or 4th entering the top of the stretch. Jazil made a big move and he was on the lead rounding the clubhouse turn.
Carm More than 1 year ago
As much as I would finally like to see another triple crown winner, I think Dullahan will get up in time to beat I'll have another, with Union Rags third and close for fourth between Optimizer and Atigun. Both Lucas and Ken McPeek know how to get them ready for a Belmont.
Monroe More than 1 year ago
myself, I believe Union Rags pedigree will come to the forefront at a mile and a half. while watching a replay of the Preakness, Baffarts" horse was not slowing down, I'll Have Another ran him down. lets be real about things, Union Rags couldn"t run Hanson down in the longest race of his 2yr old campaign. I really feel we have a 95% chance of getting this done Saturday. My greatest fear is the jockey will try and hold I'll have Another back to the point that the horse doesn"t understand whats going on.
Grass Is Greener More than 1 year ago
Mario is so predictable that even I'll Have Another had figured him out. Mario simply waits for the 3/8th pole to arrive and then he'll shake up his mount somewhere before the quarter pole. The horse showed his maturity early on, in his first race back as a 3yo in the Robert B Lewis. He was tracking inferior speed that day, and he just ranged up over the frontrunner on his own and just waited. He did not take off until Mario told him to. That is by far the best feeling in horseracing if you have the right horse. I didn't but I knew that he was the real deal then. It is very rare for a 3yo that time of the year to show that kind of maturity. I have been watching over 1000 races a year for many years. The year before it was Brilliant Speed who caught my eyes, but since he doesn't have tactical speed he would always show a lot of run behind horses while waiting for signal from the jockey in his turf races at Calder and Gulfstream. I cashed on him in the Blue Grass but is still waiting for his breakout performance. I guess the BC Turf can be considered a breakthrough but it's only a matter of time before he wins another G1. Possibly the race before the Belmont Stakes, in the Manhattan Handicap.
Dipak Roy More than 1 year ago
one thing remember mario is not John Velazquez or Javier Castellino, they are the belmont champion, i live in Vancouver, i know Mario, he never piloted any horse in 1-1/2 mile race, he lacks the experince of timing and spacing, and there is no match between him and other two experts jockey.i'll Have Another won the derby by 1-3/4 length, and preakness by sh, and it is not possible for any horse winning by so small margin, will win the belmont distance, it is now different surface, different distance and different atmosphere, there is still 2 giants in the field, and do not discount Bob Baffert horse? his horse paynter has better pedigree than I'll have another.
remarkable140 More than 1 year ago
Paynter will take the lead in the Belmont...beware, there is no pace in the race...so...
Grass Is Greener More than 1 year ago
Both Union Rags and IHA possess 22 and 45s early zip, and they have used it in the past. Paynter is not a frontrunner mainly because he's not a good gate horse and probably not as fast as IHA and UR anyway. The strategy had already been discussed. Unstoppable U is the committed frontrunner, and Paynter will track I'll Have Another and Union Rags too if he's up close. If UU doesn't start, then either IHA or UR will inherit the lead and Paynter will track behind the frontrunner or both unless he breaks slow again, then he'll probably track midpack.
remarkable140 More than 1 year ago
Will not get the distance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Since 1996, all Belmont winners, Jazil through Ruler on Ice, improved off their last race prior to the Belmont. Horses coming off of top Preakness performances like Curlin, Shackleford,,and Animal Kingdom. went back. Horses who skipped the Preakness and improved off their KY Derby did well in the Belmont, Jazil 1st, Summer Bird 1st, Rags to Riches (Oaks First,) Dunkirk 2nd ,Stay Thirsty 2nd,, Brilliant Speed 3rd. The only recent Preakness winner who won the Belmont, Afleet Alex, ran a better comparative time in the Preakness the runner up Andromeda's Hero skipped the Preakness and improved in the Belmont. I think it is doubtful IHA will improve off his Preakness while Union Rags fits the profile of a horse skipping the Preakness and running an improved race in the Belmont.
Grass Is Greener More than 1 year ago
A really good horse can win or run well in the Belmont after winning or running well in the Preakness. I don't think you made a good poiint at all. Besides Afleet Alex, we have Risen Star, Point Given, Easy Goer, Tabasco Cat, Hansel, Thunder Gulch, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Victory Gallop, Smarty Jones, First Dude, Curlin, Skip Away, Editor's Note, Go for Gin, Bet Twice all fired big shots in the Belmont Stakes. That's 17 horses in the past 30 years and I'm sure I've missed a couple. I would love to see I'll Have Another win the Triple Crown, but I'm really only looking for a great race from him. I will not be disappointed in him if he runs a race like Curlin, Silver Charm or Skip Away's in the Belmont Stakes.
Coopdlite Cooper More than 1 year ago