Velazquez likes his ride after taking a spin on Union Rags

Triple Crown threat I’ll Have Another is handled by hot walker Benjamin Perez after a workout Monday at Belmont Park. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Triple Crown threat I’ll Have Another is handled by hot walker Benjamin Perez after a workout Monday at Belmont Park. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: June 06, 2012

ELKTON, Md. — John Velazquez wanted to ride Union Rags since the big colt’s tour de force in last October’s Champagne Stakes. If not for a commitment to 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom this spring, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame jockey may have actually been aboard Union Rags in this year’s Derby.

Even though Union Rags finished seventh that day under Julien Leparoux, Velazquez never stopped believing. That is why he came down from New York Saturday night for an early Sunday morning appointment to work the big colt at Fair Hill. He was not disappointed.

"Oh, my God,’’ Velazquez said right after the 5-furlong workout.

Union Rags broke off a few lengths behind a workmate, an allowance horse named Roddickton. Peter Brette, Union Rags’ regular exercise rider, was aboard Roddickton. Even though Union Rags was straining to run, Velazquez was intent on making him wait. When he finally asked him to go in the final 200 yards of the 5-furlong work: “Boy, did he go," Velazquez said. "And he galloped out unbelievable. Now, I had to slow him down. Very impressive. Hopefully, I didn’t do too much."

Union Rags pulled well clear of his workmate. He was timed in 58.5 seconds after splits of 11.85, 23.41 and 34.68. He galloped out 6 furlongs in 1:12.38.

Velazquez will ride Union Rags in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. He knows how good Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another is, but, after getting on Union Rags, he has now felt what he first saw last year.

"I go back to [the Champagne]," Velazquez said. "If he comes to Belmont Park and runs something like that, it’s going to be really tough to get beat."

Talent is not the issue with Union Rags. When he has had clear run, he has never failed to fire and fire big. He simply did not have that chance after breaking terribly in the Derby. The questions now are: Has he gotten faster as a 3-year-old, and will he be able to deal with the mile and half distance?

"If there isn’t going to be a Triple Crown, this horse is going to do it," Velazquez said. "I ride to win the race whether there is a Triple Crown [on the line] or not. I get paid to win, not to finish second."

There was some question about exactly what Leparoux was doing in the Florida Derby, when Union Rags finished third, and the Kentucky Derby. He gave up great position in Florida and then was tentative in Kentucky. Velazquez promises to do neither. He would have gone after early position in Florida and feels certain, with that, there would have been a different outcome that day.

Nobody in the Union Rags camp was pleased with what went down in the Kentucky Derby. And it wasn’t just the ride.

"We still can’t believe Julien never called us," owner Phyllis Wyeth said. "Here we are, favored in the Derby, screaming and yelling for him, and he says he hears a crack in the bone and the leg went rubbery at the three-eighths pole and never even bothers to ask how your horse is doing."

Turned out the horse was doing fine, just covered with dirt after trailing almost the entire 20-horse field for most of the race. Leparoux was as good as gone when he did not make that call.

Wyeth is under no illusions about the Belmont.

"This Belmont is going to be as tough as hell,’’ she said. “That horse is a good horse."

That would be I’ll Have Another, the colt that got the clean trips in the Derby and Preakness, and had the talent to get there.

Velazquez rode Went The Day Well in the Derby. After the break, he was right outside Union Rags. The two were together until the far turn, when Velazquez said, "I’m done with [traffic], so I went around."

Leparoux stayed in the same spot and ran right into the traffic as Union Rags lost precious momentum.

Went The Day Well eventually finished fourth, running faster than any horse in the stretch.

"The Derby, I think, is a complete throwout," Velazquez said. "He broke bad, bad post position, got killed. You got to throw that one out."

Union Rags trainer Michael Matz got a long-term commitment from Velazquez and his agent, Angel Cordero. The Belmont, he hopes, will be the start of a big summer.

"I’m glad Johnny made the effort to come down and sit on him," Matz said. "Whether he can get a mile and a half or not, I don’t think anybody knows. But Johnny seemed to like him?…?At this point, we’ll give it a try."

When 2012 began, Union Rags was the horse everybody was talking about. Now, he is training in the shadows at Fair Hill, while I’ll Have Another is getting all the attention in New York. Time can change everything. Saturday, in about 2 1/2 minutes, time could change everything again.

Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com.

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