06/11/2012 3:14PM

Union Rags has second half to burnish 3-year-old championship credentials

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Tom Keyser
Union Rags, winner of the Belmont Stakes under jockey John Velazquez, will make his next start in either the Jim Dandy or Haskell.

Although Union Rags and I’ll Have Another were the stars of this year’s Triple Crown, both had unfulfilling experiences that will always have their connections, and many others, wondering what might have been.

For Union Rags, winner of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, his traffic-filled trip in the Kentucky Derby precluded any bid for a Triple Crown sweep, something his trainer, Michael Matz, thought he was fully capable of achieving.

For I’ll Have Another, his injury and retirement on the eve of the Belmont denied the winner of the Derby and Preakness a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.

Those two met just once this year, in the Derby. They obviously will not meet again. At this point, I’ll Have Another clearly is the leader among the 3-year-old males for the year-end Eclipse Award. But he cannot add to his r é sum é , leaving him vulnerable to a second-season charge from, among others, Union Rags.

Oh the irony of it all for Matz.

Six years ago, after Barbaro won the Derby to remain unbeaten, he was atop the division. He remained there through the Triple Crown, even after Bernardini won the Preakness, a race marred by the catastrophic breakdown of Barbaro. Bernardini, however, fashioned a strong second-half run – he won the Jim Dandy, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup – to capture the Eclipse Award.

Now, Union Rags will try to do enough to wrest the title from I’ll Have Another. His quest, Matz said, will begin at the end of next month, in either the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on July 28 or the Haskell at Monmouth on July 29. After that, Union Rags will be aimed at the Travers Stakes on Aug. 25 at Saratoga, Matz said.

“It all depends on how we finish the season,” Matz said. “I’ll Have Another, we raced one time against him. He was very impressive in those two races,” he said, referring to the Derby and Preakness.

Matz added, “We’re not throwing in the towel by any means.”

Matz has always thought quite highly of Union Rags, so he was gratified the colt now has a classic win to his name. He got a Beyer Speed Figure of 96 in the Belmont.

“I thought he needed to run in a Triple Crown race,” Matz said. “I wasn’t sure about the mile and a half. Nobody knows that. He did get a mile and a half good enough. He deserved a chance to do that.”

Matz was frustrated after the Derby, because he thought Union Rags was sitting on a big race. From the time Union Rags had finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall, Matz and assistant Peter Brette mapped out a plan that they believed would allow Union Rags to perform at his best in the Derby and leave him in a position to go for a Triple Crown sweep.

But his troubled trip in the Derby, which followed a less-dramatic but equally disappointing trip in the Florida Derby, caused Matz to change riders. Julien Leparoux – who rode Union Rags three times, including to a victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes – was out, John Velazquez was in.

“I thought the horse had trained well to the Derby,” Matz said. “He trained well all winter. We had a six-month plan, without any bumps, but the one thing I had no control over was the races. Whether it was the horse, the rider, or the trainer, it didn’t work out, so we had to do something.”

Union Rags returned to the Fair Hill training center in Maryland in the wee hours of Saturday night. He will get a brief vacation before pointing to the major summer races.

I’ll Have Another pulled out of Belmont Park on Monday morning, bound for California, where he will be let down from the demands of racing and training while at the Hollywood Park barn of his trainer, Doug O’Neill.

Paynter, who finished second in the Belmont, went back to California on the same flight as I’ll Have Another. He returned from the race minus his left hind shoe, but Jim Barnes, assistant to trainer Bob Baffert, said there was no damage to the hoof and theorized that the shoe came off late in the race, or even after the race.

Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat finished second in all three Triple Crown races. Bodemeister was second in the Derby and Preakness, then sat out the Belmont. Bodemeister is being pointed to the Haskell for his next start, while Paynter is likely for the Jim Dandy, Baffert said.

Atigun, who finished third in the Belmont, also is going to be pointed to the Jim Dandy as a prep for the Travers, trainer Ken McPeek said.

Dullahan, who finished seventh in the field of 11 as the Belmont favorite, “came back fine,” trainer Dale Romans said.

“He didn’t seem like he was handling the track,” Romans said. “It was deep and cuppy.”

Romans said Dullahan may go back to the turf in the immediate future. Dullahan also left Belmont Park on Monday, on the same flight with I’ll Have Another and Paynter. The plane was to stop in Louisville to drop off the Kentucky-based horses, Dullahan included, then continue to California.

It’s halftime for the 3-year-olds, with plenty of game left to play.

– additional reporting by Mike Welsch