ELMONT, NY — Even in the face of his most disheartening bobbles, the company line from Union Rags' camp rarely wavered.
In each of the bay colt's three career losses — all in races where much was expected of him — trainer Michael Matz and owner/breeder Phyllis Wyeth saw reasons beyond a lack of ability to explain away the end results.
Coming into Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the only thing Matz said he wanted for his charge was a chance for his talent to decide his fate as opposed to outside factors.
While the 144th edition of the race will be remembered for the giant opportunity lost a day earlier, the final leg of the 2012 Triple Crown will go down in the Union Rags camp as the day he capitalized on a long-awaited break.
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With jockey John Velazquez's Hall of Fame hands guiding him for the first time, Union Rags slipped through a fortuitous spot of daylight on the Belmont rail and fought past Paynter to win the $1 million Belmont Stakes by a neck before a crowd of 85,811.
The bubble of anticipation was burst from the Belmont a day earlier when it was announced that Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I'll Have Another, who was bidding to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, had suffered a career ending tendon injury.
With the racing community still trying to digest that news, Union Rags provided a bit of salve in validating the high opinion he had previously carried.
"I'm just glad for Phyllis and the horse (that) we got to see the real Union Rags," said Matz, who saddled his first Belmont winner. "I do think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, is one of the best 3-year-olds in this crop. Whether he could have done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know, but it sure would have been fun to see."
If there was one 3-year-old male that seemed destined for glory at the start of the year, Union Rags was it. Despite a narrow loss to eventual champion Hansen after a wide trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November — his lone loss in four starts last year — the 2011 winner of the Grade I Champagne Stakes was thought to have more upside than any in his class.
After winning the Grade II Fountain of Youth by 4 lengths in his seasonal debut in February, Union Rags ran third as the favorite in the Grade I Florida Derby after being too far off a soft pace. He subsequently came home seventh in the Kentucky Derby when he missed the break and got shuffled well back in the 20-horse field.
While Matz didn't squarely blame jockey Julien Leparoux for those defeats, he did feel the need to replace him with Velazquez for the Belmont.
"I don't think all those things can be blamed on the horse and I'm not blaming the riders either," Matz said. "I thought Johnny rode a brilliant race today."
The chemistry between the new pairing was instant.
Breaking from post position No. 3 as the 5-2 second choice, Union Rags was guided by Velazquez into the inside path in fifth while Paynter carved out opening fractions of :23.72 and :49.23 up front with Optimizer sitting just behind.
Though many questioned whether Union Rags had the bloodline to last over the 11/2-mile test, the son of Dixie Union began answering that question when he advanced to third around the final turn as Atigun challenged the leader three wide. With jockey Mike Smith going to a left-handed whip on Paytner in midstretch, Velazquez went to work right-handed and snuck through when Paytner drifted out slightly near the sixteenth pole. Union Rags hit the wire in 2:30.42 over a fast track.
"I engaged him to the hole and ... he took it," said Velazquez, who won his first Belmont in 2007 aboard the filly Rags to Riches. "When the other horse came over and went out next to me, I said 'This is my opportunity.' "
Smith, who guided Paynter's stablemate Bodemeister to runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, put the heat on himself for his latest near-miss on a Bob Baffert trainee.
"I'm a veteran. Ain't no one supposed to get through on me," Smith said. "I'm extremely proud of my horse. I'm just not too proud of myself right now."
Long shot Atigun held for third. Grade I winner Dullahan, the 5-2 favorite, finished seventh.
"It just looked to me like he got to floundering around a little bit as loose as this track was," said Dale Romans, trainer of Dullahan.
With his merit restored, the only downside to Union Rags earning the fifth and most important win of his seven-race career is the unfortunate question of what a certain foe could have done.
"Union Rags was fairly impressive today," Romans said. "But the way they ran, it wouldn't have surprised me if we'd had a Triple Crown winner."