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Union Rags Turns To Riches At 144th Belmont Stakes

With I’ll Have Another scratched, another notch set into Affirmed’s belt as last Triple Crown winner

What’s in a name? Or perhaps two names? For jockey John Velazquez, it’s two big wins at the Belmont Stakes in the last five years with the West Hempstead resident atop Union Rags in 2012, edging out Paynter by a neck on Saturday, June 9. Atigun came in to show.

The 126 pound jockey said it was an unbelievable race, even though the win didn’t come with spoiling history. I’ll Have Another was scratched one day before a chance to push Affirmed aside in the history books as the last to win all three jewels of the Triple Crown. The horse became the second since 1936 to win the first two legs, only to be unable to compete in the “Test of Champions.”

Velazquez credited the hard-luck colt with the victory. The horse switched jockeys from the Derby with Julien Leparoux to Velazquez, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August. Leparoux rode Atigun.

“I waited for a hole to open up and I got lucky,” said Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont with filly Rags to Riches. “The horse did it all.”

The victory for owner Phyllis Wyeth came long ago while she slipped into a deep slumbering sleep, just after she sold Union Rags. After breeding the colt, Wyeth sold him for $145,000 as a yearling but had a dream he would accomplish big things on the racetrack. She bought him back last year for $390,000.

Wyeth, 71, has been in a wheelchair since 2001. She was in a car accident 50 years ago in which she broke her neck.

“I knew. I had a dream,” she said while holding the Owner’s Trophy. “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.”

Much like the Preakness, the Belmont was decided at the wire, with Paynter and Union Rags jockeying for position on the inside track, with the rest fading down the stretch of the 1 1/2 mile track in Elmont. Velazquez was pinned inside between Atigun and Paynter. It’s exactly what he wanted.

“Coming down the stretch, it wasn’t my intentions to come [inside] there, but when the other horse came over and went out next to me, I said, ‘This is my opportunity to get through on the rail,’” Velazquez said.

The crowd of 85,811 cheered as the two furiously battled down the stretch, with Union Rags barely catching the front-runner in the second straight photo finish to decide a Triple Crown race this year.

Velazquez indicated that there was no change in the routine or mindset going into the Belmont after the scratch of the history-making hopeful. He was more worried about Dullahan, who came in at a disappointing seventh place.

“I think I’ll Have Another was going to be close to the pace,” Velazquez stated if the horse had raced. “With the two horses to follow, whether I was going to follow I’ll Have Another or Mike Smith’s horse, that was my plan. My only concern was not to do too much with him the first part of the race, I wouldn’t have enough to fight Dullahan.  I was concerned about Dullahan.  Especially the way he finished in the Derby.”

Trainer Michael Matz said in the Winners Circle that preparation for the race was key due to its unusual length and although he had trouble in the Derby (he placed seventh) and sat out the Preakness, he knew he had a winner in the barn with this 3-year-old.

“We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential,” said Matz, who trained 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. “When we trained him, we gave him four races as a 2-year-old and gave him a rest and had a good plan. He never missed a beat. His first race [this year] couldn’t have been any easier. He had trouble in his second race and his third race. 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.”

On coming around the turn and barreling for home, Matz said he was confident the horse would come through at finish line. He commended Velazquez for coming in and riding Union Rags for the first time on to victory.

“Johnny did a terrific job,” Matz stated. “He broke cleanly and saved ground. He just made a terrific effort.”

Velazquez feels this victory validated Union Rags after a rough start in the first two legs.

“People forgot about this horse,” Velazquez said pointing at Union Rags. “This horse was one of the first choices for the Derby, and he had a bad race in the Derby and right away everybody forgot about him. Everybody got off the bandwagon…All I know is I’ve been watching this horse for a long time and he’s a very, very good horse.”