Everyone whose heart had been broken by Union Rags before must have had the same thought: he's not going to squeeze through.
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“I knew,” owner Phyllis Wyeth said. “I had a dream. I knew he would make it. I only have that racehorse and half of another, a claimer. And I knew Michael could do it with him. It was my dream and he made it come true today.”
Once again, the Triple Crown chase delivered what it has each of the last 34 years: No winner, and a reminder of how fickle and beautiful and confounding horse racing can be.
Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion I'll Have Another was retired in a ceremony an hour before the Belmont, waylaid by a tendon injury.
Union Rags, who spent the first months of the year as the favorite to win the Derby but finished seventh after being jostled through traffic, stood in the same spot later.
Mike Smith, who rode Paynter stablemate Bodemeister to second place at Churchill and Pimlico, stalked away, blaming himself for not blocking off the rail.
“[Union Rags] just shouldn't have gotten through on me,” he said.
Union Rags, who had been made the 5-2 second favorite behind Dullahan on the revised morning line, covered the mile-and-a-half in 2:30.42 and returned $7.50, $4.20 and $3.40.
Paynter's second place-finish meant that Smith, trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat were second in each of the Triple Crown races. He paid $5.10 and $3.90. Atigun was third and paid $10.60.
Wyeth's parents, James Paul Mills and Alice du Pont Mills, were breeders. She's been in horse racing for much of her adult life, turning to the game after breaking her neck in a head-on car crash at age 20 in 1962 ( she is using an electronic chair to get around now). Paralyzed from the waist down, the former steeplechase rider who had worked for John F. Kennedy married painter Jamie Wyeth, son of one of the country's most treasured artists, Andrew Wyeth.
By the time Union Rags came along, Wyeth's breeding operation — still genetically linked to her parents' — had stalled. He was the last son of Tempo, who had almost died giving birth before Union Rags was born. As a yearling, he roamed Wyeth's Point Lookout farm in Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley until her accountants advised his sale. He went for $145,000.
Wyeth regretted the decision and sent Russell Jones to buy him back a year later, giving him a ceiling of $390,000. Bidding rose all the way to that number but went no further.
Wyeth chose Matz as trainer and sent the colt to his stable at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md.
Matz, who had trained Barbaro to a Kentucky Derby winner in 2006 before the horse broke down at Preakness and later died, quickly discovered that he once again had a horse with Triple Crown potential. Union Rags nearly went undefeated as a 2-year-old – including a win in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont – and easily won his first race this year.
His troubled run in the Florida Derby, though, caused Matz to question the ride of jockey Julien Leparoux. Still, Union Rags remained a Kentucky Derby favorite in many eyes. Again in Kentucky, though, Leparoux struggled to put the horse in position.
Matz, an often brusque former Olympian show jumper, thought his horse had not been given a chance to run. He decided to skip the Preakness and enlisted the riding services of John Velazquez, a New York-based rider who won last year's Kentucky Derby on Animal Kingdom, trained by another Fair Hill horseman, Graham Motion.
It proved the right pairing.