Belmont analysis: Union Rags will atone for poor trip in Derby

After nearly three weeks of agonizing over my Belmont Stakes pick, I decided to go with Union Rags o

After nearly three weeks of agonizing over my Belmont Stakes pick, I decided to go with Union Rags over Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I’ll Have Another. With the late scratch of I’ll Have Another, I’m confident that Union Rags will win the final leg of the elusive Triple Crown.

I’ll Have Another could have become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and just the fourth since Citation in 1948. He had a great chance at ending that drought. Now, we’ll never know.

What I do know is that I thought Union Rags was going to win the Kentucky Derby. It took about five seconds after the start to realize Union Rags was in big trouble. He was squeezed badly coming out of the gate, and then jockey Julien Leparoux took him back, leaving him 18th in the field of 20.

Even worse, when he began moving on the backstretch, Leparoux kept him on the inside, and he ran right up on another horse’s heels. Leparoux, who had managed to get Union Rags completely boxed in in the Florida Derby in his prev­ious start, had to check him sharply. Union Rag’s comment line in the Daily Racing Form for the Derby is “Squeezed, took up.”

When he was finally allowed to run, Union Rags rallied from 18th by 19 lengths to finish seventh by 71⁄2 lengths, which, of course, was no help to all of us who thought we were getting a steal when we bet him at 5-1. I thought we just might get 5-1 again today, but, of course, the scratch of I’ll Have Another may leave him 5-2 or shorter.

Today, thankfully, we get a rider switch to none other than John Velazquez, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August. Velazquez won the Belmont Stakes in 2007 on the brilliant filly Rags to Riches, despite an extremely poor start, when she nearly fell on her face. Velazquez didn’t panic, and then positioned his filly on the outside of horses to ensure a clean run, which ultimately produced an historic, narrow victory over Curlin, who went on to be named Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008.

Though he has the three post today, Velazquez has plenty of time in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes to find a clear spot on the outside.

By skipping the Preakness, Union Rags is fresh and fit, and his two bullet workouts since the Derby say he’s ready to show that his losses in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby were more of a function of bad luck than his ability, which we have always thought was immense.

The Top Contenders

Dullahan — He rallied from 11th by 12 lengths to finish third by 13⁄4 lengths to I’ll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby. He skipped the Preakness and had a sensational bullet work since at Belmont. He’s also getting a favorable rider switch from Kent Desormeaux to this year’s leading jockey in earnings, Javier Castellano. And his trainer, Dale Romans, is having a phenomenal year.

Dullahan is certainly capable of winning this. However, his third in the Derby was his first finish in the money in four dirt starts. He was the second favorite on the morning line, so do you really want to take a relatively short price on a horse who is 0-for-4 on dirt? Besides killing his odds, the scratch of I’ll Have Another hurts the chances of this deep closer who needs a hot pace to be at his best.

Paynter — After winning his maiden debut easily at 2-5, he showed his class by finishing fourth by 33⁄4 lengths to I’ll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby. That’s an amazing accomplishment for a horse making his second lifetime start. He followed that with a late-weakening second in the Grade III Derby Trial and an impressive allowance tally on the Preakness

undercard at Pimlico at 1-9. His works since for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert have been typically dazzling, but he sure is taking a major step up.

Street Life — Closer trained by Chad Brown came from way out of it to finish third by a length and three-quarters in the shorter Peter Pan Stakes with blinkers added. He’ll be running late, and could dent the exotics.

My Adonis — He held on ten­aciously when third by a half-length in a shorter, ungraded stakes on Preakness Day as the 1-5 favorite. That was his eighth finish in the money in 10 starts.

If You Use Your Imagination

Unstoppable U — He’s won a maiden and an allowance race very impressively on the front end. This is his third lifetime start.

Optimizer — His solid second in the Rebel Stakes was followed by double-digit losses in the Arkansas and Kentucky derbies and the Preakness. His smallest margin of defeat in those three races was 12 lengths.

Ravelo’s Boy — He’s been idle since finishing fifth in the Tampa Bay Derby at 18-1.

Atigun — He won an allowance race at Churchill Downs at even money. Whoopee.

Guyana Star Dweej — The good news is he’s well-bred for the distance. The bad news is that he finished a distant second to Unstoppable U in an allowance race in his last start.

Five Sixteen — He was fourth by 113⁄4 lengths in a bottom-level allowance race at 13-1 with blinkers added. New jockey Rosie Napravnik is seeking to become the second woman to win the Belmont Stakes, following Julie Krone on Colonial Affair in 1993.

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