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Rags’ Journey Comes Full Circle

Velazquez knew there was something to this colt long ago

It appeared as if the misfortune of Union Rags would carry through to the Belmont Stakes. The promising colt had been so impressive as a 2-year-old that throughout the winter he was considered the favorite for the Kentucky Derby as well as a realistic threat to capture horse racing’s elusive Triple Crown.

After a disastrous trip in the Kentucky Derby, Union’s Rags connections decided to bypass the Preakness in order to have a fresh horse for the Belmont. Yet, although new rider, John Velazquez, had given Union Rags a perfect ground-saving journey, the horse was behind horses as the Belmont field turned for home.

“Coming down the stretch, it wasn’t my intentions to come in 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. “I have to say that this horse…we’ve been looking at this horse for a long time…Javier [Castellano] is riding a couple of horses which looked really good at the beginning of the year, and I said, ‘Well, if we can get on Union Rags, it would be perfect.’  I think that would be the horse of the future.”

With the colt’s former rider, Julien Leparoux and his mount Atigun to the right of Union Rags and effectively boxing him in, Velazquez had no choice but to patiently wait for an opening, which might never appear.

“It was a very good race,” Leparoux said. “There was a clean race for everybody, so that’s very important. For us, as the jockeys, for the people watching the race, it’s great to see a clean race. I hope everybody had fun today. We had a good trip. We stayed inside most of the trip. I could get him out around the turn, I thought I had a good chance to win, he made a nice move. He ran a big race, so that was good.”

Then, inexplicably Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard Paynter, who had led the whole race and was still in front as the field entered the final furlong, whipped his mount left-handed. This caused the tiring leader to bear out, and leave just enough room on the rail for Velazquez to guide Union Rags through to surge to the lead in the final strides of the one and half mile Belmont Stakes, and capture the Triple Crown’s third jewel by a neck.

“It looked like we had it,” said Paynter’s trainer, Bob Baffert. “It looked like it was ours. I really felt like I was going to win the Belmont. It was snatched away again.”

“He ran tremendous,” Smith said of Paynter. “I’m such a perfectionist. [Union Rags] just shouldn’t have gotten through on me. I’d like to see what the outcome would have been if he wouldn’t have. I haven’t had the chance [to talk to Bob Baffert]. I’m sure he doesn’t want to speak to me right now.”