Union Rags wins the Belmont Stakes! Has he come full circle? Well, not quite. However it is very close.
Last year, The Michael Matz trained colt broke his maiden first time out at Delaware Park. Won the Three Chimneys Saratoga Special Stakes (G2) at Saratoga by 7 1/4 length, then took the Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park by 5 1/4 lengths. He was the heavy favorite to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill Downs on November 6. He ran extremely well, but was moving more left to right down the stretch and couldn’t get to Hansen in time. Lost by a head.
Despite the loss, the Dixie Union colt was a Kentucky Derby favorite by many heading into 2012. Even though Hansen won two year old male horse of the year honors, he wasn’t going to be a main threat when the races were to stretch out.
Union Rags didn’t disappoint in his first race as a three year old. As the surprising 2nd choice to Discreet Dancer, he blew away the competition by 4 lengths in the 1 1/16 miles Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park. His final time of 1:42.68 was just 1/5 off the track record. This horse was for real. A little over a month later, he would try to prove his worth as a true Kentucky Derby contender with a win in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. He was bet down as the 2/5 favorite. He had several chances to open it up, but he did not fire on that day. It was the first time we saw a sense of mediocrity front this colt. By the time he made a real move, halfway down the stretch, he finished 3rd beaten a little over a length. It was the first time in six races he finished worse than 2nd place.
In the Derby, it was the worst case scenario in every way you could imagine. Out of the gate, he was pinched from both sides by Take Charge Indy and Dullahan. He was last early on. Jockey Julien Leparoux on a couple of occasions had to maneuver his colt to the rail, to the outside as he continued to get into traffic trouble. As he went to make a move on the far turn, Daddy Long Legs was being pulled up and went right into the path of Union Rags. Yet another setback. When he finally had some racing room, he was able to make up good ground, but ran out of real estate by the end of the race. He finished 7th, 7 1/2 lengths behind the winner I’ll Have Another.
Matz and owners Chadds Ford Stable decided to bypass the Preakness as the triple crown hopes were dashed. In addition, they knew in the best interest of the horse that they didn’t need to race three times in 5 weeks. Focus on the Belmont Stakes where he’s had success and 5 weeks rest from the Derby. With the 7th place effort and the continued rise of I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister, Union Rags had become somewhat of an after thought.
After the Preakness, all eyes were deservedly on I’ll Have Another and his quest to become the 1st triple crown winner in 34 years. Bodemeister was immediately removed from Belmont consideration by trainer Bob Baffert.
As the days led up to the Belmont Stakes, many wondered if Union Rags would be able to get back to form. Was the Florida and Kentucky Derby behind him? Could he regain his 2 year old form? Was I’ll Have Another the superior horse in the United States? There were many questions as all eyes were on Belmont Park on June 9.
As the news spread that I’ll Have Another was retired due to tendonitis in a front leg and was scratched from the race, the attention quickly diverted to Dullahan (Blue Grass Stakes winner and 3rd in the Derby) and Union Rags (Fountain of Youth winner and 7th in the Derby). All others were there to fill the race.
Both these colts were set off as 5/2 co-favorites. Union Rags had a terrific start, while Dullahan was pulled back to his usual position near the back of the field. Paynter, the other Baffert colt, went to the front just like his stablemate Bodemeister did in the Derby and Preakness. He led throughout the race. Union Rags sat in 3rd through 5th and waited for his opportunity. Dullahan floated between 9th and 12th. As they hit the far turn and approached the stretch in the 1 1/2 miles endurance race, Paynter get rolling along and Union Rags was waiting for an opening on the rail. As they straigtened out down the stretch, Paynter still held the lead, and the rail opened for John Velasquez (took over for Julien Leparoux) and Union Rags. It didn’t seem like Union Rags was going to have enough but dug in and passed his rival with a couple of strides to go.
Once again, Baffert settles for 2nd place as his colt put up yet another solid effort. That made it three consecutive runner-ups in the 2012 triple crown. Bodemeister finished 2nd in the Derby and Preakness and Paynter in the Belmont.
For Union Rags, he went from top of the two year old division and main threat to win the Kentucky Derby, to a somewhat afterthought, back to on top of the three year old division. Yes, I know it is one race and there are several big races remaining over the summer. There are several story lines we will follow as we look towards the next big race in the division. Will Union Rags be able to follow up his Belmont performance? How about Bodemeister, will he find the winners circle after two heartbreaking, but strong performances? Will a newcomer break through like Coil did last year? He didn’t run in any of the triple crown races, yet took home the win in the $1,000,000 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
Aside from the sudden retirement of I’ll Have Another, horse racing is full of excitement as once again a wide open three year old division makes for some interesting racing over the next few months. There is no true division leader. However, you do have to like the fact that Union Rags was able to overcome a lackluster Florida Derby and treacherous trip in the Kentucky Derby to breakthrough with another big career win in the Belmont Stakes. He has 5 wins in 8 starts, with only one result worse than 3rd.
I can’t wait to see who enters the Haskell on July 29. If all eligible horses make the trip such as Union Rags, Bodemeister, Paynter, Dullahan, it might go down as the most anticipated race of the year.