06/09/2012 7:47PM

Hovdey: Belmont Stakes provides consolation, big and small

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Barbara D. Livingston
Union Rags (right) gets through on the rail to defeat Paynter in the closing yards of the 144th Belmont Stakes.

In the jam-packed aisle of the Belmont Park box seat section, not long after the horses went under the wire in the 144th Belmont Stakes, Paul Reddam flattened himself against the railing as Michael Matz and the Union Rags entourage squeezed by, on the way to the winner’s circle. Matz paused long enough to commiserate once again with Reddam, but Reddam would have none of it.

"You’ve got a wonderful colt,” Reddam told the trainer.

Matz smiled and moved on, as if carried by a wave. Reddam watched, and for a man who’d just missed a chance to make racing history, seemed rather pleased.

"I’m heading for the windows,” said Reddam, a known horseplayer. "I tossed Dullahan and pounded the exacta. It’s not as good as winning the Triple Crown, but it’s a pretty good second best.”

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

So there it was, the 2012 Triple Crown season ending in a slam-bang finish at the end of a mile and one-half, with Reddam’s Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another back at the barn nursing the dicey tendon that knocked him out of the Belmont 24 hours earlier, and Union Rags back on top of the world he once seemed destined to own. As torches go, consider this one passed.

But hang on tight. It’s going to be a slippery devil. The pace-setting Paynter ran a brave race in narrow defeat, stepping in for his stablemate Bodemeister, an impressive runner-up to I’ll Have Another in both the Derby and the Preakness. If those three go on – Union Rags, Paynter, and Bodemeister – the summer and fall promises to be very entertaining.

Of course, such promises are regularly broken in a game that rests so delicately upon the legs of fragile young Thoroughbreds. As if to underscore the bittersweet temper of the day, I’ll Have Another received a warm reception in the Belmont saddling paddock in an unusual, but entirely appropriate, farewell appearance an hour before post time for the Belmont Stakes.

Sure, there were a few voices raised in protest. Wouldn’t be New York otherwise.

"Boo to dis! Boo to dis!” cried one fan, obviously here on vacation from the Carribean. “Poot ‘im inda gate!”

Well, they woulda if they coulda. Others were more appreciative.

"It’s just a darn shame, because he looks terrific, in great flesh,” said one particular visitor admiring I’ll Have Another.

The visitor was Eddie Maple, the retired Hall of Famer who knows what it’s like to miss a Belmont he seemed destined to win. Thirty years ago, in the spring of 1982, Maple was riding high with Conquistador Cielo. They’d skipped the Derby and the Preakness but jumped into the national consciousness with a bristling win in the Met Mile on Memorial Day against older horses. Trainer Woody Stephens had no hesitation about running the colt right back in five days in the Belmont Stakes, and Maple was licking his chops.

Then, on the day before the race, Maple crashed at Belmont and ended up watching the Belmont from the hospital as Conquistador Cielo won by 14 lengths under Laffit Pincay.

"They ran a TV cable up the outside of the hospital building so they could put a TV camera on me watching the race,” Maple said. "Only they moved me out of intensive care and into the cardiac ward so the trauma patients wouldn’t be disturbed. Heck, the way he won I still could have ridden him – except for the six broken ribs and the blood in my urine.”

Bad luck haunts horse racing like the ghost of Hamlet’s dad. The scratch of I’ll Have Another was a cold slap in the face for anyone who expected fairytales to come true. As for Union Rags, he was beginning to seem more like a gorgeous illusion than the real thing, until he bulldogged  through a tight hole inside Paynter late in the game to put his name back in lights.

Michael Matz was not surprised. Very pleased, but not surprised. He’d stuck to his guns that Union Rags was a better horse than the one who was so unceremoniously defeated in the Florida Derby, and then batted around like a beachball in Kentucky.

"It was unfortunate what happened in the Kentucky Derby with this horse, especially for his owner,” Matz said, referring to Phyllis Wyeth, whose adoration for her colt has transcended the fact that she has spent most of her life in a wheelchair.

"I mean, she’s not the healthiest woman in the world,” Matz noted. "Whether she’ll have another horse like this, who knows? But I’ll do anything I can to help her fulfill the dreams she’s had for this horse. I just can’t imagine what it’s like being fifty years in a wheelchair. She’s just a wonderful person.

 "I’ve had horses in the past for Phyllis,” Matz added. “Not like this one, but she said she’d have a good one someday. I guess she kept her promise.”