Bob Ford: Union Rags finally shows what he can do

Posted: June 10, 2012

ELMONT, N.Y. - It wasn't much of a hole for Union Rags to navigate, little more than a slip of light between the rail and Paynter, a speed horse that was threatening to steal away with the Belmont Stakes on Saturday evening.

On another day, in another race, with luck that didn't hold quite as well, there wouldn't have been enough room for jockey John Velazquez to urge Union Rags from the shadow of his previous two races and into the winner's circle at last.

Union Rags has experienced those days in what had been a disappointing racing season, but this time he got through, and this time, there's no longer a reason to question whether it was more than just bad racing fortune that held him back before.

"We just got to see the real Union Rags," said Michael Matz, who trains the horse in Fair Hill, Md. for 71-year-old Phyllis Wyeth, wife of Chester County painter Jamie Wyeth.

This is a story that Wyeth and Matz hoped would be bigger for the brown colt, but winning the Belmont will have to be big enough. Coming off a great two-year-old season to open this year with a win in the Fountain of Youth, Union Rags was among the horses given a chance to make a run at horse racing's Triple Crown.

Those aren't easy to win, though, and if 2012 isn't an indication of that, nothing ever will be. Until late Friday morning, I'll Have Another, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was on pace to become just the 12th Triple Crown winner.

That attempt at history was waylaid when I'll Have Another suffered swelling in his left foreleg after two consecutive morning gallops and had to be scratched from the 11/2-mile race. It cost I'll Have Another a chance at racing immortality and probably cost Belmont Park as many as 40,000 paid admissions on Saturday.

Instead of being a day to tuck into the scrapbook, the race became merely the feature race at Belmont. A very good feature race, but nothing that will live for decades.

It will be good enough for Union Rags, however, and for Wyeth, who bred the horse, sold him as a yearling and, after dreaming he would be a champion, bought him back for nearly twice what she was paid. Maybe it wasn't good business, but it was prescient dreaming.

"I knew he would make it," Wyeth said of Union Rags after Velazquez got him to the finish line. "It was a dream and he made it come true today. Nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today. That was unbelievable."

We'll never know now how the Belmont would have changed if I'll Have Another hadn't suffered his tendon injury. Whatever that meant, this was anything but a hollow win for Union Rags. He took advantage when Paynter jockey Mike Smith mistook the yellow silks of Atigun on his outside for those of Union Rags and slid over slightly. That left just enough room and created just enough good fortune, and the rest is in the record books forever now.

"We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential," Matz said. "We really did think when he has a clean trip and can show himself, he's one of the best three-year-olds of this crop. Whether he would have done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know. It sure would have been fun to see."

Instead, I'll Have Another, now retired from racing, made only a brief appearance on Saturday. He was saddled and led to the winner's circle a half-hour before the feature race, and if there was the expectation of a great ovation from the crowd of 85,811, it never materialized. New Yorkers aren't that interested in yesterday's heroes. A light rain fell on his flanks and I'll Have Another was unsaddled and led off a track for the last time, his ears still pricked forward in anticipation of the race that would never take place for him.

It was Union Rags' day, finally. The race set up perfectly and then he was lucky enough to show he was good enough, which wasn't the case earlier this season.

"Those things can't all be blamed on the horse," Matz said. "It's just circumstances that happened."

Racing luck comes and goes, and it changed places quickly on Friday and Saturday. Sometimes, it evens out. That's how it feels for the Union Rags group, although it took long enough.

How it would have felt for I'll Have Another no longer matters.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

 

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