Horse camps settle into what's next after Belmont

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 10, 2012 

ELMONT, N.Y. — Trainer Dale Romans has never been afraid to say what the majority of his fellow horsemen are often thinking.

Shortly after arriving on the Belmont Park backstretch Sunday morning, Romans again managed to put the perfect words to the general train of thought running through many minds in the aftermath of the 2012 Triple Crown.

"I'm ready to go home and take a nap," he deadpanned.

Indeed, the mettle needed to get through the whirlwind series that is the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes was tested on by all parties this year.

For all the commotion on the Belmont backstretch leading up to Saturday's 144th running of the final leg of the Triple Crown, a decisive calm descended Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after Phyllis Wyeth's homebred Union Rags scored a redemption-laden victory over Paynter in the 11/2-mile test.

After five weeks of being at the center of the storm, Doug O'Neill — trainer of newly-retired dual-classic winner I'll Have Another — headed back to California to try catch his breath after a journey more taxing and rewarding than he could have imagined.

Michael Matz, who conditions Union Rags, also wasted no time getting his multiple Grade I winning charge back to some normalcy, shipping the bay colt back to his base at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland just hours after his Belmont triumph.

Considering the extreme highs and lows registered during this year's five-week classic odyssey, it's little wonder many participants want an extra second to try and absorb all that went down. After two brilliant wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, I'll Have Another's chances of becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years went abruptly off the rails when he was found to have the beginnings of tendinitis in his left front leg and was subsequently retired one day before the Belmont.

"It's just a shame he didn't get to run because there is no doubt in my mind he would have done it," said Team O'Neill racing manager Steve Rothblum. "I kept telling Doug every day, 'I just wish (the race) was tomorrow' Because every day you have to wait something can happen. And it did."

With the 3-year-old class losing its leader, Union Rags is now in position to reclaim the mantle he once held. The son of Dixie Union bounced out of his Belmont outing in strong order and will be pointed to either the Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga on July 28 or Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth on July 29 with ultimate designs on the Grade I Travers Stakes on August 25.

"It all depends on how we finish the season," Matz said Sunday when asked about possibly overtaking I'll Have Another for divisional honors. "They ran one time against each other and that was it. He was very impressive in those two races he ran with Bodemeister. Who knows what can go on?"

Given how their first outing together went, it's a safe bet that wherever Union Rags ends up, jockey John Velazquez will follow.

Velazquez, who replaced Julien Leparoux aboard the colt following back-to-back losses in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, artfully guided Union Rags through a narrow hole on the rail to overtake Paynter in deep stretch.

When Javier Castellano committed to graded stakes winner Algorithms earlier in the year rather than ride Union Rags, Matz initially wanted Velazquez to ride Union Rags throughout the Triple Crown.

The Hall of Fame rider couldn't give a three-race commitment due to his ties with 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom — who ended up being sidelined — but is hoping his second chance with Union Rags sticks.

"I'm willing to stay with him, no problem ... until they fire me," Velazquez joked. "I've been watching this horse for a long time, and he's a very, very good horse."

Romans fully believed he had the best horse going into the Belmont Stakes with Grade I winner Dullahan, a thought that strengthened when I'll Have Another scratched.

The son of Even the Score ended up giving Romans one of his more disappointing outings as he struggled to a seventh-place finish Saturday. Dullahan has yet to win over a dirt surface and will likely head to the turf for his next start.

"It's extremely disappointing, I thought he was going to win us a classic," Romans said. "I think there is still dirt in his future but I don't think he liked the deepness of this track. It started getting white in the day, you can tell that's when it's getting sandy and cuppy."

Paynter gave trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat the tough distinction of having the second place finisher in all three Triple Crown races this year as his stablemate Bodemeister was defeated by I'll Have Another in the first two legs.

"Second is still sinking in," Baffert said of Paynter, who did come back from the Belmont missing his left hind shoe. "He'll go back home (to California), freshen up, and we'll look to bring him back somewhere. Maybe the Jim Dandy. We have Bodemeister for the Haskell."

I'll Have Another is scheduled to ship back to California on Monday where he will remain in O'Neill's barn for the time being. Owner J. Paul Reddam said Saturday he had not been contacted personally by any stud farms but that he had "guys who handle that."

What the son of Flower Alley might have accomplished in the Belmont will linger in some minds. But the ultimate nugget some are taking away from Saturday's bang-up race is that there are still individuals capable of extraordinary accomplishments.

"We lost a major player in I'll Have Another ... however, I think the best horse won the race," said trainer Chad Brown, who saddled Belmont fourth-place finisher Street Life. "Union Rags ... he's going to be a force to be reckoned with the rest of the year. He's not a horse that I'd be looking to run against."

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.

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