06/04/2012 5:11PM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Velazquez liking his chances with Union Rags

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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.”