After coming up the rail in the final yards to win Saturday's Belmont Stakes, Union Rags delivered on the promise that was evident when he won his first start on July 12, 2011 at Delaware Park. Trainer Michael Matz knew what he had so he never stopped believing in the colt even when the results weren't there. He wanted this for longtime client Phyllis Wyeth. He wanted this for the horse. And, truth be told, he wanted it for himself
You don't win Olympic show-jumping medals without being competitive. You don't win a Kentucky Derby without knowing what you are doing. And when you have to watch Barbaro, the horse of a lifetime, suffer a catastrophic injury and eventually have to be put down, you don't get over it.
It stung last summer when Barbaro's owners fired Matz. He would not be human if he did not want to show what he could do when he got another Triple Crown-caliber horse. He is human.
I'll Have Another has a big lead in the race for 3-year-old champion, but his campaign is over after a brief retirement ceremony in the Belmont Park winner's circle, just before the big race.
"He's had an incredible run," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "In any sport you have to stay injury free. Unfortunately he came up with a slight injury. Could we have run him? Yes. But would that have been the right move? No … He's a once in a lifetime horse. We're just focused on all the great part of this journey he took us through."
Young jockey Mario Gutierrez, dressed in a shirt and tie, mounted his dream horse one final time in the winner's circle.
"I was 100 percent confident in my horse,'' he said. “A lot of people didn't believe in him since the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby … I know if he was 100 percent today, he would prove everybody wrong again."
Union Rags will race on, perhaps in the Haskell (July 29) at Monmouth Park or the Jim Dandy (July 28) at Saratoga, with the Travers (Aug. 25) at Saratoga as the major summer goal. In the fall, Matz no doubt will gear Union Rags up for a run at the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, possibly with a race at Belmont Park, a track he clearly loves or perhaps, if he wants one final race against 3-year-olds, he could be persuaded to bring Union Rags to Parx Racing for the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 22.
The Belmont's marathon distance is such an anachronism you are not quite sure what to make of the time, which translated to a Beyer speed figure of 96, still not much better than what Union Rags did as a 2-year-old.
The reality is that the colt has five wins in eight starts, reasonable excuses in the three losses and a Belmont Stakes. He will have to get faster, especially if he is going to compete against a very strong group of older horses in the fall, but watching him, you always think there is more there. The colt never seems to get tired and he has never been passed in the stretch.
He does not blow fields away with one big burst, but rather runs them into submission. If you kept watching after the wire Saturday, you would have seen a horse that just wanted to keep running.
Union Rags arrived back at his Fair Hill (Md.) base about 1 a.m. Sunday. The largest non-Triple Crown Belmont crowd (85,811), no doubt swelled by all those who bought tickets to see history, instead saw soon to be Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez deliver a Hall of Fame ride.
"It didn't look like he was going to get through and I was worried," Matz said.
“Johnny V'' is so good because he sees what is around him and anticipates what might happen next. He knew Mike Smith on front-runner Paynter would have to come off the rail a bit to deal with the rally of Atigun. He also knew Smith did not know he was right behind him. When Paynter came off the rail, Velazquez pointed Union Rags for the hole.
Phyllis Wyeth had a perfect description to NBC's Bob Costas of that moment: “Move over, I'm coming.''
So, it was.
“You're expecting something is going to happen,'' Velazquez said. “If it happens, it's brilliant. If it doesn't happen, you're a bum.''
Four hours after that frantic finish, Bob Baffert was leaving King Umberto's, a restaurant a few miles east of the track on Hempstead Avenue. With the Heat-Celtics game in the background, the trainer stopped for autographs and posed for pictures.
“Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?'' he had said earlier. “I need a Triple Crown for seconds.''
When you consider Baffert had a heart attack in Dubai 10 weeks before, it really wasn't such a bad spring for the man whose horses led all but 150 of the 6,930 yards that make up the Triple Crown and won none of them.
Baffert will be back with Bodemeister in the Haskell (where he will be very tough to beat) and Paynter likely will go in the Jim Dandy on the way to the Travers.
I'll Have Another leaves the horse racing stage like so many before him — a brief flash of very bright light gone far too soon.
Union Rags is still here, with the right jockey finally, a Classic win for posterity and a future with serious possibilities. n
Contact Dick Jerardi at email@example.com