With the Triple Crown no longer in play, the Belmont Stakes instead became a 1-1/2-mile run for redemption. Union Rags, who finished a disappointing seventh in the Kentucky Derby and then was held out of the Preakness, used a desperate final burst to catch Paynter and win a photo finish Saturday at Belmont Park.
“I’m just glad we finally got to see the real Union Rags,” trainer Michael Matz said of his horse, who entered the race a 5-2 second choice, behind narrowly favored Dullahan.
John Velazquez replaced Julien Leparoux, who had ridden Union Rags at Churchill Downs, on the mount. A previous winner of the Belmont Stakes in 2007 aboard the filly Rags to Riches, Velazquez masterfully guided Union Rags in relentless pursuit of Paynter through the homestretch. With a few yards remaining, Union Rags edged past Paynter, who had led almost from the outset, to nip him at the wire. He returned $7.50 to win and got the distance in 2:30.42.
“It was a dream, and he made it come true,” said Phyllis Wyeth, the bay colt’s owner, who watched as Union Rags squeezed past the leader along the rail. “He just said, ‘Move over, I’m coming.’ ”
Only 30 hours earlier, the favorite was I’ll Have Another, who was 4-5 on the morning line after he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Horse racing was anticipating its first Triple Crown winner in 34 years — the longest drought in the sport’s history — and general admission tickets at Belmont Park, which have a face value of $10, were being hawked for $80 online.
Then, on Friday afternoon, I’ll Have Another was scratched because of tendinitis and retired. In the process he became the 12th horse since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978 to win the first two legs without completing the sweep.
As Paul Reddam, the ill-fated Triple Crown hopeful’s owner, put it, “I’m afraid history is going to have to wait for another day.”
And yet Union Rag’s exultant finish, witnessed by 85,811 hoarse racing fans, served as an emotional poultice for the sport. Certainly the victory provided vindication for Wyeth, who in 2010 had sold Union Rags as a yearling for $145,000. A year later, haunted by dreams that the horse would develop into a stakes winner, Wyeth paid nearly three times that amount to buy him back.
“I said, ‘I don’t care, he’s coming back,’ ” Wyeth, 71, who has used a wheelchair since 2001, told the New York Daily News earlier this week. “I really did have that dream. I said, ‘How could I have sold him?’ That was a big mistake.”
For Matz, the trainer, every day is a moment in the winner’s circle. In July 1989, Matz and his then-girlfriend, D.D. Alexander, were flying from Hawaii to their home in Philadelphia. They missed their connection in Denver and were given a choice of two flights. The flight they chose, United Flight 232, suffered a catastrophic engine failure. The plane made an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa, but cartwheeled upon touching down, killing 111 passengers.
Matz, now 61, survived, as did Alexander, who became his wife. In fact, Matz twice returned to the burning fuselage to lead three children to safety and rescue an infant.
Six years ago, Matz trained a 3-year-old who would win the Kentucky Derby by more than six lengths and seemed a lock to win the Triple Crown. That horse, Barbaro, suffered a career-ending injury at the Preakness and was later put down.
On Saturday, it was Matz’s turn to smile. Grinning from ear to ear, he said, “We needed every bit of that mile and a half.”
In another barn, there was frustration. Owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith had all endured a third Triple Crown race this spring in which their horse finished second. At Churchill Downs and at Pimlico, Baffert had trained and Smith had ridden Bodemeister, who placed in both races. Bodemeister, like Paynter, is owned by Zayat, but was not entered in the Belmont. So Smith rode Paynter.
The combined margin of defeat in those three races by Bodemeister and Paynter? Approximately two lengths.
For Baffert, who has trained nine horses that won Triple Crown races in previous years, this spring has been a tutorial in endurance. Afterward, he forced a rueful smile and asked, “Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?”