ELMONT, N.Y. — It took less than a minute for John Velazquez to buy into the hype.
On Sunday, the freshly minted Hall of Fame jockey made a special trip to Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland to acquaint himself with the horse he is scheduled to pilot for the first time in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
After being considered the leader of the 3-year-old class for much of the winter and spring, Union Rags' recent disappointments have some debating whether his luck has gone bad or if his ability was overrated.
Once Velazquez guided the Grade I-winning colt through a 5-furlong move in :59 flat last weekend, he knew which side of the fence he was on.
"The talent is there, definitely," Velazquez said Tuesday. "Hopefully his luck changes in this race and he can show the talent he has."
Win or lose, the magnitude of I'll Have Another's Triple Crown bid will be the story of the 144th Belmont Stakes when the 11/2-mile "Test of the Champion" is run. But lost in the shuffle of the many subplots is the tale of possible redemption for the son of Dixie Union.
While I'll Have Another chases immortality, the Belmont is Union Rags' opportunity to show that lack of talent was not the problem behind troubled-filled finishes in his past two races — third in the Florida Derby and seventh in the Kentucky Derby.
After the worst two finishes of the colt's seven-race career, trainer Michael Matz helped make the call to replace jockey Julien Leparoux — who guided the colt to a 4-length win in the Grade II Fountain of Youth in February — with Velazquez for the Belmont and beyond.
Having lost on other mounts to Union Rags three times before the Kentucky Derby, Velazquez figured the bay colt was a star in the making. If the Union Rags who beat Velazquez in the Grade II Saratoga Special, the Grade I Champagne and the Fountain of Youth shows up Saturday, the veteran rider said there will be no need for any more excuses.
"Julien is an excellent rider. I think he just got unlucky when he rode him," Velazquez said. Union Rags' luck "has cost him from showing his talent. In (the Fountain of Youth) he went by me (aboard Discreet Dancer) like we were standing, and he wasn't even 100 percent fit to run the race.
"I think if he can go back to that day or the day he won at Belmont (in the Champagne) we have a real good chance."
Though the 11 foes are the most a Triple Crown hopeful has faced in the Belmont since Charismatic was part of a 12-horse field in 1999, Union Rags and Dullahan are the only other graded-stakes winners in the field besides I'll Have Another.
If Union Rags is to beat I'll Have Another, he is going to have to avoid pitfalls and overcome a pedigree that suggests 11/2 miles might be beyond his scope.
Sitting too far off a tepid pace doomed Union Rags in the Florida Derby. After missing the break out of post No. 4 in the Kentucky Derby, the bay colt had to take up early and was shuffled back to 18th in the 20-horse field.
"We still feel Union Rags hasn't been able to really run his race as a 3-year-old," owner and breeder Phyllis Wyeth said of her colt.
Union Rags has shown in his four career wins he is capable of demonstrating the cruising speed and tactical ability needed to capitalize on the softer fractions that often result in a 11/2-mile test.
Though offspring of Dixie Union usually have issues going beyond 11⁄8 miles, Matz said there are some influences on the female side of Union Rags that give him hope going 12 furlongs.
"His second and third dam were 1½ -mile horses, so I think that's where he gets the distance from," Matz said. "He is a big horse with a long stride that covers the ground easy. But we don't know (about the distance). No one knows."
Even if he runs his best race, there is a chance Union Rags is simply facing a superior talent in I'll Have Another. All his connections hope for is a fair fight.
"I don't think he had a chance his last two races to run. I don't think you can blame it on him," Matz said. "We'll find out Saturday."