There was no giddy celebration for owner Phyllis Wyeth of Union Rags' victory Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, no jumping up and down as jockey John Velazquez drove the horse through on the rail to defeat Paynter by a neck.
Wyeth has been confined to her wheelchair since 2001 and has used a motorized chair to get around for many more years since suffering some spinal cord damage in a 1962 auto accident. The 71-year-old owner declined all postrace interview requests save for her comments to NBC in the winner's circle, where she explained why she bought Union Rags back for $390,000 as a 2-year-old after selling him for $145,000 as a yearling.
"I knew; I had a dream," she said. "I knew he would make it. I only have that racehorse and half of another, a claimer. I knew [trainer Michael Matz] could do it with him, and he made it come true today."
As the daughter of James Mills and Alice DuPont Mills, who founded Hickory Tree Farms and owned such top runners as Devil's Bag, Believe It and Gone West, Wyeth is a longtime horsewoman. She's well-known, too, as the wife of artist Jamie Wyeth, whose father Andrew is a famed American artist.
She never had a Grade I victory until last year when Union Rags won the Champagne Stakes at Saratoga not long after she bought back the horse she bred at her stable in Chadds Ford, Pa. Matz said that decision belonged to Wyeth alone.
"After she sent Russell Jones to the sales, he handed me a yellow slip and said, 'Phyllis wants you to train him.' I've had horses for Phyllis before. She always said, 'I'm going to have a good one one of these days.' So I think she kept her promise."
Matz believed Union Rags not only was good enough to win the Kentucky Derby but had Triple Crown potential. That dream came crashing down a few jumps out of the gate at Churchill Downs when jockey Julien Leparoux ran into so much traffic, the horse was finished long before it crossed under the wire in seventh place. Matz then skipped the Preakness and pointed for the Belmont.
He wanted the Triple Crown for Wyeth, but one out of three of the classics ain't bad.
"This should be the time of her life that she's enjoying," Matz said. "It would have been nice to do , especially for Phyllis. She's been in that wheelchair for 50 years. just can't imagine what she's gone through in her life like this. I just thought this horse was bringing so much happiness to her."
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