It was a reversal of fortune after a hard-luck spring.
Under a clever ride from John Velazquez, Union Rags stormed through a slip of a hole and caught pacesetting Paynter in the closing strides of the 144th Belmont Stakes to win by a neck.
“It was an awfully small hole for such a big horse (17 hands) to fit through,” said Chester County trainer Michael Matz . “You’ve got to give Union Rags and Johnny credit. They got it done. When I saw the head-on, it wasn’t that big a hole.”
Velazquez was sure the colt had the talent to do it.
“I waited for a hole to open up and I got lucky, very lucky,” said Velazquez who will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.
"I rode him with a lot of confidence. I didn’t know if the hole was going to open up, but I anticipated it was going to open up, and he took it. Once he did, he put in a good fight. For me to be here and win it here is incredible. It is home for me.”
The victory brushed aside the stinging disappointment that Phyllis Wyeth’s colt encountered when he was boxed in the Florida Derby, and then a dreadful start that doomed the imposing bay colt in the Kentucky Derby. So Julien Leparoux was fired and John Velazquez was hired.
“Union Rags had a bad race in the Derby and right away everybody forgot about him,” said Velazquez, who donned Wyeth’s Chadds Ford Stable’s gold and ball brown silks for the first time.
“Everybody got off the bandwagon. In the Derby they can break bad or get a bad trip, and they can't run their best races. He was one of them. All I know is, I've been watching this horse for a long time, and he's a very, very good horse."
“Everyone really got to see the real Union Rags,” added Matz with a broad smile. "We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential. We gave him four races as a two-year-old and we gave him a rest and we had a good plan for this year. He got in trouble the second race and the third race.”
It was Union Rags’ second start at Belmont Park whose wide and sweeping turns seem to suit the long-striding colt. He won the Champagne Stakes here last year.
“I do really think this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, he is one of the best 3-year-olds of this crop,” Matz said. “Whether he could have done something against I’ll Have Another, I don’t know, but it sure would have been fun to see.”
Disappointment hung heavy over the grand old racetrack on Long Island when on Friday June 8th I’ll Have Another-- who would have been shooting to be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 following his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness-- was scratched and then retired because of an injured tendon in his left front leg after a morning gallop that day.
Gone was racing’s shot at immortality, and probably an additional 40,000 fans that didn’t show up. Still, a raucous crowd of 85,811 turned out, many of them in fedoras and madras jackets and puffing cigars as they ambled over to the betting windows. They stamped Dullahan the favorite, with Union Rags the second choice, both at 5-2.
A son of Dixie Union, Union Rags is out of Tempo, by Gone West. He was bred in Kentucky and raised at Wyeth’s Point Lookout Farm in Chadds Ford, Pa. On the advice of her accountant Wyeth had reluctantly sold the colt for $145,000 as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale in August 2010. By early 2011 Wyeth was having serious seller’s remorse.
“Lord, I think I’ve made a terrible mistake,” recalled Wyeth.
Meanwhile, bloodstock agent and long time friend Russell Jones was at the February Fasig-Tipton sale of two-year olds in Florida.
“He was in the sales catalogue so I called Phyllis and asked if she wanted to buy her horse back. She said yes, please,” recalled Jones who lives just outside Unionville, Pa. “I called her before the start of the sale and she gave me a limit of $390,000 and that’s exactly what he sold for. How crazy is that? It was like it was meant to be. I only had to bid one time-- 390.”
Wyeth is the daughter of James Mills and Alice DuPont Mills, who founded Hickory Tree Farm and Stable in Middleburg, Virginia. A highly successful thoroughbred breeding and racing operation in Middleburg, Virginia, they won numerous big stakes races, initially in 1966 when their filly Glad Rags won a British classic, the 1,000 Guineas Stakes.
The Mills later campaigned such stars as Devils Bag and Gone West. As for Phyllis, she was an accomplished equestrian and rode steeplechase horses from 1958-1961 and worked for John F. Kennedy before and during his presidency. In 1962 she was suffered a broken neck and was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. She has been confined to her wheelchair since 2001 and uses a motorized scooter to get around.
Union Rags’ mare Tempo descends from a line of bloodstock cultivated over the generations by Wyeth’s parents. Union Rags was to be Tempo’s last foal, as she had complications in the previous foaling.
Wyeth is married to celebrated artist Jamie Wyeth, whose father Andrew was an iconic American painter who died at age 91 in 2010. Jamie Wyeth led Union Rags into winner’s circle at Belmont Park. Meanwhile, Phyllis in her motorized scooter was zipping across the track’s apron, smiling and waving to the crowd. Sporting her trademark straw hat she pulled up next to her brilliant bay colt and an official draped a blanket of white carnations over her lap. Phyllis tapped her classic winner on the nose as dozens of cameras clicked. The Wyeth gang erupted into applause, cheers and even some tears.
Now 71, Wyeth never stopped believing in her horse
"I knew he would make it. I had a dream," said Wyeth. “"I only have Union Rags and half of another runner, a (small-time) claimer. I knew Michael (Matz) could do it with him. It was my dream and he made it come true today, Michael and Johnny (Velazquez). And nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today, I can tell you that. That was unbelievable. He just said 'Move over, I'm coming.' He believed in the horse. And Michael got him there."
Union Rags broke swiftly from the gate and was in a good spot going into the first turn, then saved ground along the rail while running in fourth or fifth. He moved up to second as Paynter hit the quarter pole. Turning for home, Union Rags was full of run on the rail, but needed an opening.
On the outside, Leparoux, aboard a 20-1 long shot Atigun, was angling at Smith on Paynter with a big run in mid-stretch. Smith switched to a left-hand whip, and Paynter drifted to his right, just a bit off the rail. Velazquez pounced on the opening. The pair raced head-to-head in the in the shadow of the wire. Union Rags stuck a neck in front to snare the victory.
Velazquez said Smith was in a no-win spot. He had to pay attention to Atigun, since he was the first threat at mid-stretch.
“Mike could not see me,” said Velazquez, who also won the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches. “He had to drift outside to go to the next horse. I looked like a genius I guess. You have to give it all to the horse. I tried to do something, and the horse did something when he needed to.”
The colt had turned in an impressive workout with Velazquez aboard at the Fair Hill Training Center the weekend before the Belmont.
"I was just hoping he could put that work into this race and he did," Velazquez said. "I was very proud of him. Just to be home (in New York) this was my opportunity here. It was incredible; there aren't words to describe it.”
“He’s a strong rider,” Matz related. “To be quite honest, when [Javier Castellano] took off the horse (prior to his three-year old debut), we asked John to ride the horse, but he could not give us a three-race commitment at the time because he was [going to ride] Animal Kingdom in Dubai. I didn’t want to keep changing there, back and forth. Then Johnny winds up getting the mount anyway.”
“I guess I’m the lucky one, that’s the only way to describe it,” Velazquez said. “I have to say we’ve been looking at this horse for a long time. I told (agent Angel Cordero Jr.) at the beginning of the winter that if we can get on Union Rags it would be perfect; I think he will be the horse of the future.”
Belmont Day was good racing and good fun. It didn’t rain. The 85,811 were far more people than came out to watch Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Affirmed. It was the second largest Belmont Stakes Day on-track handle ever, trailing only 2004 when Smarty Jones tried— and failed —to win the Triple Crown.
The NBC Sports Group reported that overnight ratings for this year’s Belmont Stakes rose by 13% over last year and 74% over 2010. According to their figures, the broadcast of the race produced a healthy 5.4 overnight rating and a 13 share.
Union Rags won for the fifth time in eight career starts. The Belmont was the fourth graded stakes victory for the colt who scored in the Three Chimneys Saratoga Special Stakes (G2), was second in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last year and rolled to an easy victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park in February. Union Rags has now earned $1,798,800.
The 2012 Triple Crown ended as the Derby prep season started, with Union Rags as the top three-year old colt racing. In the moments after Belmont the horse that would be king-- finally was.
Matz said the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 28, or possibly the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth on July 29 are the next likely options for Union Rags. After that, he will be aimed at the Travers Stakes on Aug. 25 at Saratoga and a prep race in September probably at Belmont for the “big enchilada,” the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 5 at Santa Anita Park.