Belmont: Union Rags finds riches on the rail

Jockey John Velazquez urged Union Rags up the rail, snuck up on Paynter and squirted through to rob

Finally, daylight.

For the first time on Saturday, a few pale beams of sun shoved their way through the dingy gray sky as Mrs. Phyllis Wyeth gushed about her horse in the Belmont Park winner’s circle.

Moments before, John Velazquez had urged Union Rags up the rail, snuck up on Paynter and squirted through to rob Mike Smith blind five bobs from the wire in the 144th Belmont Stakes.

Against the backdrop of a stunningly and dishearteningly short-circuited Triple Crown bid by I’ll Have Another, who was retired with a tendon injury on Friday, Union Rags burst back onto the scene in the 3-year-old division for trainer Michael Matz, who gave Velazquez the Belmont mount after two unsatisfactory trips under Julien Lep­aroux in the Florida and Kentucky derbies.

“I thought he rode a brilliant race today,” Matz said. “Whether he got up there or didn’t, he still rode a great race.”

Velazquez finally did get there, another masterful ride by a jockey who will enter the National Racing Hall of Fame in a few months.

If not for another commitment, Velazquez would have been on Union Rags all along, but in his first race on the son of Dixie Union, Velazquez maneuvered Union Rags to the rail, let him settle into an even, comfortable tempo and found barely enough room between Paynter and the rail to charge through at the sixteenth pole.

He got a slim nose in front five strides from the wire and lengthened it by a few inches a step at a time to win by a close neck, giving Velazquez his second Belmont victory. He won it in 2007 in another tight finish aboard the filly Rags to Riches.

“You expect, when you do this many times, that something is going to happen,” Velazquez said. “If it happens, it’s brilliant; if it doesn’t happen, you’re a bum, basically.

“He gave me all intentions he was going to get through.”

Smith, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003, blamed himself for the loss, a particularly painful one for the connections.

Smith rode Bodemeister on the lead for trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to give way in the final moments to I’ll Have Another both times.

The lightly raced, but promising Paynter used an identical trip in the Belmont, only to suffer an excruc­iatingly identical result.

“I’m extremely proud of my horse, I thought he ran incredible,” Smith said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I rode bad, but I did make one little mistake, and he got inside of me and it cost me the race.

“I’m a veteran. No one’s supposed to get through on me.”

“Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?” Baffert said. “I just feel bad for Mr. Zayat. The poor guy, he’s been tortured on this Triple Crown.

“Mike Smith will probably take a lot of heat for it. It’s a jockey thing. He didn’t want to give up the rail. Johnny, you have to give him credit. He was patient, and he just waited.”

Racing has been waiting for another Triple Crown since Affirmed became the 11th to do it in 1978, and will continue to wait by virtue of I’ll Have Another’s withdrawal at the 11th hour on Friday.

The colt was brought to the paddock and the winner’s circle before the Belmont in a ceremonial tribute, which drew cheers from a crowd of 85,811, a Belmont Stakes record for years in which a Triple Crown was not on the line.

An ultrasound showed a slight tendon injury in his left foreleg Friday morning, and owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill decided to scratch from the Belmont and retire I’ll Have Another to stud.

“Could we have run him? Yes. But would it have been the right move? No,” O’Neill said on Saturday. “It’s been such an unbelievable run. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

I’ll Have Another’s retirement sent shockwaves through the racing world, but on Saturday, the sun still came up, although there wasn’t any evidence of it all day, at least not until shortly after the Belmont.

Matz, who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby with Barbaro, had been looking for a three-race commitment from a jockey heading into the Kentucky Derby preps, but Javier Castellano, who nearly rode Union Rags to the 2-year-old championship, only to be thwarted — barely — by Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup, opted for Algorithms.

Velazquez couldn’t commit because he was scheduled to ride Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup.

Union Rags, who dominated the Saratoga Special and Champagne heading ino the Breeders’ Cup last year, won the Fountain of Youth convincingly under Leparoux to start his 3-year-old campaign, but was third in the Florida Derby and had a nightmare trip to finish seventh in the Kentucky Derby.

They skipped the Preakness, and Velazquez got the mount for the Belmont.

He took full advantage of his second chance to get on the big bay colt.

Paynter and Smith looked like they were going to steal the Belmont on the front end, but Velazquez picked the thieves clean when they weren’t looking.

“Not much [room], but he got through there, and it’s my job to not let him,” Smith said. “I didn’t see him until it was too late. I could’ve tried to make it different, but you don’t want to let the stewards make the outcome of a race like this. You want it to be a fair race. If I did anything, I would’ve put him in some harm, and I certainly didn’t want to do that.

“I’ll say it again, I’m proud of both horses [Paynter and Bodemeister]. Their efforts were magnificent. I’m just not too proud of myself right now.”

“I probably would’ve done the same thing,” Velazquez said. “He didn’t know I was coming. He cannot see me. He’s so professional, he’s always going to be critical of himself.”

Mrs. Wyeth, confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash in 1962, was escorted to the winner’s circle by security.

Union Rags, out of the Gone West mare Tempo, is fourth-generation progeny from Wyeth’s Point Lookout Farm.

He appeared to be indifferent to the life of a racehorse as a foal, and she sold him for $145,000 in 2010, but had second thoughts and bought him back for $390,000 as a 2-year-old.

By virtue of a measured, crafty trip under Velazquez, he’ll be pointed toward the Travers at Saratoga now, with more than a glimmer of a chance at warming up the race for the 3-year-old championship.

“Nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today, I can tell you that,” Mrs. Wyeth said. “That was unbel­ievable. He just said, ‘Move over, I’m coming.’ ”

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