Finding room to run was the rangy, long-striding colt's problem at Churchill Downs, and new rider John Velazquez found it for him in midstretch in the 144th Belmont Stakes. Union Rags came up the rail to overtake front-running Paynter eight strides from the wire and edged away to win by a neck.
Phyllis Wyeth, Union Rags' 71-year-old owner, let out a whoop as her horse of a lifetime redeemed himself. "Nobody other than Johnny could have gotten through on the rail today,'' she said. "He just said, 'Move over, I'm coming.' ''
Velazquez replaced Julien Leparoux, who was third on 20-1 shot Atigun. Dullahan, the 5-2 favorite despite his 0-for-4 record on dirt, finished seventh after encountering traffic problems.
"They liked this horse for so long,'' Velazquez said, "and for him to rise back to the top of the game, I'm very happy for them. I was looking for room at the quarter pole, and when it came and I asked him, the horse was there for me.''
Just like in the Derby and Preakness, the pacesetter ridden by Mike Smith, trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Ahmed Zayat gave up the lead inside the sixteenth pole. I'll Have Another, who was scratched from the Belmont and retired Friday because of a tendon injury, caught Bodemeister both times.
Smith blamed himself for drifting off the rail and letting Union Rags slip inside him. "That should never happen to a veteran rider like me,'' Smith said. "I'd like to see what the outcome would have been if he didn't.''
Baffert kept his sense of humor despite a third consecutive bad beat. "Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?'' he said. "I just feel bad for Mr. Zayat. The poor guy, he's been tortured in this Triple Crown.''
Even without I'll Have Another, a crowd of 85,811 packed Belmont Park, the sixth-highest for a Belmont and a record with no Triple Crown on the line.
On her accountant's advice and against her better judgment, Wyeth sold Union Rags for $145,000 as a yearling to Long Island-based IEAH Stables and bought him back for $390,000 as a 2-year-old. When asked why, she said, "[My husband] and I had a dream, and I knew he could do it.''
The son of Dixie Union regained the stature diminished by bad-trip defeats in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby with Leparoux. All along Matz had been saying he just wanted the horse to get a clean trip. He felt sure that if he did, he had the talent to excel. He thought longtime Belmont regular Velazquez, who enters the Hall of Fame in August; would give him the best chance. "Johnny rode a great race,'' Matz said. "He got him away from the gate cleanly and into a good position.''
Union Rags ran 1½ miles in 2:30.42 and paid $7.50 for his fifth win in eight starts. He earned $600,000, raising his career total to $1,998,800. He's the 10th Belmont winner in the past 11 years who skipped the Preakness.
The early pace unfolded as expected, with Paynter leading from the start and Unstoppable U pressing in second. After a mile in a leisurely 1:38.85, Union Rags was third, 3½ lengths behind, and moving along the rail. Entering the stretch, Union Rags was second by a length, but Velazquez had to wait for an opening. It came after Smith whipped Paynter lefthanded and they drifted out. Union Rags drew even near the sixteenth pole and inched away in the final 70 yards.
"It didn't look like he was going to get through,'' Matz said, "and I was worried. But Johnny's a strong rider, and with the horse being as game as he was, we got the job done.