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Photo Courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

In a race that will long be remembered for the career-ending tendon injury suffered by Triple Crown threat I’ll Have Another the day before it was run, Union Rags found another gear as he rallied along to rail to overtake Paynter by a neck in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes (G1).

Union Rags had been viewed as a seemingly star-crossed talent when a wide trip led to a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last November.  He struggled to get clear before a belated run and a third-place finish in the Florida Derby (G1). He lost all hope when he was squeezed back at the start of the Kentucky Derby (G1) and came home a well-beaten seventh.

Fortune finally smiled on him in the 1 ½-mile Belmont.

He seized the narrowest of openings inside of front-running Paynter and fought his way past for new rider John Velazquez. A crowd of 85,811, most of whom made plans to attend with the hope that they might witness the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, nonetheless roared its approval.

“We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential,” said trainer Michael Matz, adding, “I do really think this horse, when he has a clean trip, is one of the best three-year-olds in this crop.”

Velazquez, who will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame this summer, credited the hard-charging Dixie Union colt. “He was very brave to get through there,” he said.

Rider Mike Smith, second aboard pace-setting Bodemeister for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, finished second again with another Baffert trainee in Paynter. Both are owned by Ahmed Zayat.

“Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?” Baffert asked. “I need a Triple Crown for seconds.”

Growing more serious, Baffert said, “It’s a shame. It looked like we had it. It looked like it was ours. I really felt like he was going to win the Belmont. It was snatched away.”

Zayat called it a “heartbreaking defeat” and said, “I’m very disappointed we opened the rail for him.”

Longshot Atigun finished third. Favored Dullahan, third in the Kentucky Derby, ran a dull seventh. Union Rags paid $7.50 for a $2 win wager in the field of 11. He completed 1 ½ miles in 2:30.42. 

Velazquez was delighted for Matz, who watched in dismay when ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro suffered a catastrophic injury in the Preakness, and owner Phyllis Wyeth. She sold the homebred for $145,000 as a yearling only to purchased him back for $390,000 as a two-year-old after dreaming that he was capable of emerging as a champion.

“It was my dream and he made it come true today,” Wyeth said. “He and Johnny.  I knew he could do it. And nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today, I can tell you that. That was unbelievable.”

Velazquez was delighted to reward the faith she had kept in the bay colt.

“They liked this horse for so long,” he said. “For him to rise to the top, I’m so happy for him.”

Smith blamed himself for the outcome. “He just shouldn’t have gotten through on me.”

Velazquez does not think Union Rags’ triumph was diminished by I’ll Have Another’s absence.

“Even if he was in the race, we don’t know that he was going to win the race,” he said. “We don’t know if he was going to handle the mile and a half.”

In the end, the final chapter to I’ll Have Another’s magnificent story could not be more regrettable. History will remember him for his relentless determination but also for the misfortune of becoming the first horse since Bold Venture in 1936 to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and not go on to the “Test of the Champion.”

“He’s had an incredible run,” trainer Doug O’Neill said after I’ll Have Another was paraded in the paddock in front of adoring but disappointed fans. “In any sport, you have to stay injury-free. Unfortunately, he came up with a slight injury. Could he have run? Yes. But would that have been the right move? No.”

For an Equibase chart, click here.

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