Hemmed in on the rail behind Paynter coming down the stretch Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, jockey John Velazquez knew there was no gray area. Either he was going to look dumb if he got Union Rags stuck there, or he was going to look brilliant if a hole opened.
But instinct told the Belmont veteran to sit tight in the blind spot for jockey Mike Smith.
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"He did not know I was coming there, for sure," Velazquez said. "We all do it. I was right behind. He cannot see me. The only horse he can see is the horse coming on the outside, and that was my chance."
Velazquez seized the moment to drive through on the rail as he and Union Rags more or less shouldered Smith and Paynter toward the middle of the track. After Union Rags got to the wire in front by a neck, Smith was kicking himself, saying, "He just shouldn't have gotten through on me."
It was for his skill in moments such as that one that trainer Michael Matz chose Velazquez as the replacement for Julien Leparoux, who got Union Rags snarled in traffic out of the gate in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished a sad seventh.
Matz didn't even pretend that he gave Velazquez instructions.
"Johnny rode his own race," Matz said. "I didn't tell him anything. I've never ridden a race."
It was the second Belmont win for Velazquez, who scored on Rags to Riches in 2007, and his third Triple Crown win along with last year's Kentucky Derby on Animal Kingdom, another horse he picked up at the last minute.
"I guess I'm the lucky one," Velazquez said. "That's the only way to describe it."
Well, you could say racing luck is the residue of design. Obviously, Velazquez and Union Rags benefited from the 11th-hour scratch of Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another, but even if the Triple Crown had been on the line, it's a good bet a lot of racing people would have looked at Velazquez as the spoiler.
With the big horse out of the race, Velazquez figured he would track Paynter and Smith, who figured to go to the lead early with a good chance to stay there if the fractions were slow enough, which they were in a race run in a dawdling 2:30.42. And he wanted to have enough left to fight off a late charge from Dullahan that never materialized.
When he arrived at the moment of truth in midstretch, Velazquez saw Smith was whipping with his left hand.
"I made the decision, 'He's going to come out,' " Velazquez explained of his thought process. "He's going to hit left-handed, and he's going to have to come out. I engaged my horse to get into that spot. The spot was not open yet. I had to have him ready for it. When the hole opened up a little bit, he got through."
In truth, Velazquez put Union Rags' nose into into the hole and then did all he could to make it bigger by whipping furiously with his right hand so that both jockeys were whipping between the horses.
"That's the way we do it," Velazquez said. "When Mike hit the first time lefthanded, I went for the whip righthanded, thinking that he's going to drift enough for me to get there. The hole opened up, the daylight came up, and he took it right away. It took him a little bit to pass the other horse, but once I kept on him, he took it very well. I'm very proud of him, I'll tell you."