Elmont, NY – Paynter stayed where he was, a few feet off the rail, charging toward the finish.
Everyone whose heart had been broken by Union Rags before must have had the same thought: he's not going to squeeze through.
But then, delivering upon the power and grace that Fair Hill-based trainer Michael Matz had promised, the huge colt saw the inside lane, barged forward and floated over the final feet of the most grueling Triple Crown race, winning the 144th Belmont by a neck on Saturday.
“I knew,” owner Phyllis Wyeth said. “I had a dream. I knew he would make it. I only have that racehorse and half of another, a claimer. And I knew Michael could do it with him. It was my dream and he made it come true today.”
Once again, the Triple Crown chase delivered what it has each of the last 34 years: No winner, and a reminder of how fickle and beautiful and confounding horse racing can be.
Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion I'll Have Another was retired in a ceremony an hour before the Belmont, waylaid by a tendon injury.
Union Rags, who spent the first months of the year as the favorite to win the Derby but finished seventh after being jostled through traffic, stood in the same spot later.
Mike Smith, who rode Paynter stablemate Bodemeister to second place at Churchill and Pimlico, stalked away, blaming himself for not blocking off the rail.
“[Union Rags] just shouldn't have gotten through on me,” he said.
Union Rags, who had been made the 5-2 second favorite behind Dullahan on the revised morning line, covered the mile-and-a-half in 2:30.42 and returned $7.50, $4.20 and $3.40.
Paynter's second place-finish meant that Smith, trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat were second in each of the Triple Crown races. He paid $5.10 and $3.90. Atigun was third and paid $10.60.
Wyeth's parents, James Paul Mills and Alice du Pont Mills, were breeders. She's been in horse racing for much of her adult life, turning to the game after breaking her neck in a head-on car crash at age 20 in 1962 ( she is using an electronic chair to get around now). Paralyzed from the waist down, the former steeplechase rider who had worked for John F. Kennedy married painter Jamie Wyeth, son of one of the country's most treasured artists, Andrew Wyeth.
By the time Union Rags came along, Wyeth's breeding operation — still genetically linked to her parents' — had stalled. He was the last son of Tempo, who had almost died giving birth before Union Rags was born. As a yearling, he roamed Wyeth's Point Lookout farm in Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley until her accountants advised his sale. He went for $145,000.
Wyeth regretted the decision and sent Russell Jones to buy him back a year later, giving him a ceiling of $390,000. Bidding rose all the way to that number but went no further.
Wyeth chose Matz as trainer and sent the colt to his stable at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md.
Matz, who had trained Barbaro to a Kentucky Derby winner in 2006 before the horse broke down at Preakness and later died, quickly discovered that he once again had a horse with Triple Crown potential. Union Rags nearly went undefeated as a 2-year-old – including a win in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont – and easily won his first race this year.
His troubled run in the Florida Derby, though, caused Matz to question the ride of jockey Julien Leparoux. Still, Union Rags remained a Kentucky Derby favorite in many eyes. Again in Kentucky, though, Leparoux struggled to put the horse in position.
Matz, an often brusque former Olympian show jumper, thought his horse had not been given a chance to run. He decided to skip the Preakness and enlisted the riding services of John Velazquez, a New York-based rider who won last year's Kentucky Derby on Animal Kingdom, trained by another Fair Hill horseman, Graham Motion.
It proved the right pairing.
“I waited for a hole to open up and I got lucky," Velazquez said of his ride. "The horse did it all. At first, the hole was pretty tight. I engaged him to get into the hole. I didn't know if it was going to open up, and he took it."
Said Wyeth: “Nobody could 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.'”
Favored Dullahan appeared to be in position to close but didn't.
“Turning for home he just got to spinning his wheels,” trainer Dale Romans said. “… We just didn't have a finishing kick.”
Baffert did not blame Smith, who also tried but failed to take Bodemeister wire-to-wire before being caught by I'll Have Another in the Derby and Preakness.
“[Smith] did a tremendous job,” he said. “ … Johnny, you have to give him credit. He was patient and just waited.”
I'll Have Another's ceremony was muted. Officials had planned to have him lead the Belmont horses onto the track but thought better of it. He walked the paddock, then went to the winners circle. Jockey Mario Gutierrez sat on him for a few seconds. Then trainer Doug O'Neill removed the colt's saddle. They marched off, following the horse. Gutierrez , toward the back of the procession, wept.
A crowd of 85,811 came to the track, the largest ever on a day when a Triple Crown could not be won (it was the sixth largest, period). Tickets purchased before I'll Have Another scratched on Friday were non-refundable, and questions about the what could have been persisted.
“I do really think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, is one of the best 3-year-olds in 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.”
Note: Giant Ryan, who collapsed with a broken left ankle in front of the grandstand toward the end of the 7th race, will be taken to the University of Pennsylvania for surgery. While it looked at first like the horse would be put down on the track — attendants spread a large black barrier in front of where the horse stood — he could be saved and sent to stud.
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