It had been a frustrating spring for trainer Michael Matz, and joy or anguish would come down to this: A hundred yards from the wire, could Union Rags find room along the rail to squeeze past front-running Paynter?
"I didn't know if he was going to get through or not," Matz said a day after Union Rags won Saturday's 144th Belmont Stakes by a neck for new jockey John Velazquez. "When you see the head-on, it was an awfully small hole for a big horse to get through. I thought Johnny rode a brilliant race."
So the 2012 Triple Crown finished with a talented colt finally getting some racing luck. Union Rags regained the stature he lost after bad-trip losses under Julien Leparoux in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. The finale had a strong sentimental angle, too, as wheelchair-bound owner Phyllis Wyeth, 71, exulted as her horse of a lifetime finally won a big one.
"I just thought this horse deserved another chance to win a Triple Crown race," Matz said. "I wasn't sure about going 1½ miles, but nobody knows that, and he got the distance well enough."
And so ends another equine circus with stops at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park. For the 34th consecutive year, nobody won all three, but until Friday, the sport's most elusive trophy was on the line. Then came the announcement that Derby and Preakness hero I'll Have Another had been scratched from the Belmont and retired because of a tendon injury in his left foreleg.
His exit was shocking but not surprising, because something bad always happened on Long Island to the previous 11 Triple Crown hopefuls. It could have been infinitely worse. What if I'll Have Another had broken down before an audience of millions? Racing would have been savaged in the mainstream media, and some would have called for its abolition. As his trainer, Doug O'Neill, said, "Yeah, this is extremely tough for us, though it's far from tragic. No one died or anything like that, but it's extremely disappointing."
No sport can match racing's sudden, violent reversals of fortune. On Saturday, there was a farewell ceremony for I'll Have Another less than an hour before Union Rags got his mojo back. The only sure thing is you never know what's coming next.
On the morning of the Derby, Matz felt confident Union Rags could win the Triple Crown. That dream was crushed leaving the gate when the colt was bumped and knocked back to 18th. Matz said Sunday that he never lost faith in Union Rags, but not until the Belmont's final 10 seconds was his belief validated.
"It's a hard thing to make plans six months before the Derby, have everything go right and not win," Matz said. "The thing I didn't have any control over was the races."
No one does, which is part of the Triple Crown's charm. While Union Rags rolled in the grass at his Fair Hill base in Elkton, Md., Matz reflected upon the latest strange saga. "Overall, it was quite interesting," he said. "You had a horse that came in hitting his peak with a relatively unknown rider."
I'll Have Another's glorious run is unfinished history, and Union Rags is back in the spotlight. The Derby-Preakness winner will return to Southern California today, with plans for his breeding career to be determined. While O'Neill awaits his next star, Matz will consider Union Rags' next race, perhaps the Jim Dandy at Saratoga or the Haskell at Monmouth Park.
As always, the improvised script changes, but the show goes on.