This year's Triple Crown might have produced history, but instead it delivered a sweet, compensating form of justice that is rare in life and rarer still on the racetrack. It came early last Saturday evening as the culmination of 30 hours in which the game itself plunged from the peak of anticipation to a deep trough of disappointment and then clawed its way back to relief when Union Rags and jockey John Velazquez won the 144th Belmont Stakes with a bold, rail-scraping stretch run that made good on a promise delivered much earlier.
This was back before everything happened. It was before I'll Have Another came from California and won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and then came to New York with a shot at becoming racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. It was before I'll Have Another was suddenly scratched with tendinitis one day before the Belmont, killing every ounce of the joy that had temporarily made the struggling sport seem buoyant and meaningful. And it was before I'll Have Another's saddle was ceremonially removed in the Belmont winner's circle, leaving Cinderella jockey Mario Gutierrez in tears, a morsel thrown to fans who had come to the big racetrack in Elmont, N.Y., to see him race, not retire.
This was on a cold April morning at Keeneland Race Course, and thoroughbred trainer Michael Matz stood beneath budding maples with his hands stuffed into a windbreaker and hope filling his every sentence. In his care was a strapping bay colt named Union Rags who showed promise as a 2-year-old and in his first start at three but had been compromised by racing luck and a lousy ride from jockey Julien Leparoux in the March 31 Florida Derby, in which he ran third despite being a 2--5 favorite. "He needs a chance to run," said Matz that day. "And if he gets it, he's the kind of horse who can win the Kentucky Derby."
If that had happened, the racing gods would be fully understood for rewarding Matz, who had won the 2006 Derby with Barbaro, only to see him break down in the Preakness (and famously die eight months later). "I really thought that Barbaro could have won the Triple Crown," said Matz that morning in Kentucky. "But that day in Baltimore, the whole thing just split apart." And those same gods would be understood for rewarding Union Rags's owner, Phyllis Wyeth, 71, who has spent most of her adult life in a wheelchair after an automobile accident when she was 20. Union Rags is the last in a long line from her family's racing brood, and she so loved the colt that though she grudgingly sold him as a yearling for tax purposes for $145,000, she bought him back as a 2-year-old for $390,000, cost be damned.
But those rewards were not delivered at Churchill Downs. Union Rags's Derby odyssey was exponentially worse than his Florida trip, and he finished seventh. I'll Have Another was anointed in victory, and runner-up Bodemeister was honored in defeat. Matz took his horse home to a sprawling training center in Elkton, Md., skipped the Preakness and hoped that the Belmont would validate his belief. He did something else, too: He changed jockeys, replacing Leparoux with John Velazquez, who had won the 2007 Belmont on Rags to Riches and ridden thousands of races on the quirky Belmont track.
And it was Velazquez who squeezed Union Rags through a narrow space between the rail and front-running Paynter and won the Belmont by a neck. In fading late spring light, Matz's assistant, Peter Brette, walked next to the horse back to his barn. "We were watching I'll Have Another try for the Triple Crown," said Brette. "And there was a time when we thought that was going to be us. Now we're just happy people got a chance to see what he could do."
What he did was break blessedly clean from the gate and then stalk Paynter for nearly a mile. But when he tried to accelerate in the final turn, he was briefly blocked, a flashback to previous troubles. "I was worried there for a second," said Matz. "But I knew Johnny was going to ride his race."
Paynter, who like Bodemeister is owned by Ahmed Zayat, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, took the lead into the stretch. Atigun, a 20--1 shot, closed on the outside, and Smith hit Paynter lefthanded. "Trying to intimidate Atigun," said former jockey Gary Stevens. "That caused [Paynter] to drift out." It left a narrow hole on the rail, and Velazquez urged Union Rags through.
In the closing strides the Belmont crowd roared as Velazquez pushed Union Rags's head beneath the wire, clear of Paynter and clear of his long spring's problems, validated at last. The crowd rose in full throat, forgetting for one moment that I'll Have Another was gone and embracing a brilliant performance as salve to an open wound.