- Last Updated: 5:27 AM, June 10, 2012
- Posted: 3:04 AM, June 10, 2012
The Belmont Stakes, stripped of its magic with the loss of its star, roared back to life Saturday with a stretch thriller when Union Rags came back from the dead to win the classic by a scant neck over Paynter in a duel that had 85,000 fans in the stands close to delirium.
There was no I’ll Have Another in the field, no Triple Crown on the line but those who pushed disappointment aside and went to the track got their money’s worth with interest.
They saw Union Rags finally run to his reputation. Call him the Comeback Kid of the season.
But when the dust had settled, this Belmont belonged to their esteemed trainers — vindication for Michael Matz, who trained the winner, and heartbreak for Bob Baffert, Paynter’s trainer, who scored his third straight second in this year’s Triple Crown season.
“Is there a Triple Crown for seconds? I really thought Paynter was going to win today,” Baffert said. “Mike Smith may take a lot of heat for letting Union Rags through on the rail, but you know what — he did a tremendous job.’’
The Belmont was an eerily perfect reproduction of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness for Baffert — his pace setters in all three events seemingly had their classics won, only to be run down in the last yards by a closer. At Churchill and Pimlico, it was I’ll Have Another who collared Bodemeister. Yesterday it was Union Rags who necked Paynter in the shadow of the wire.
This triumph just might be the sweetest day in Matz’s life after a year of turmoil and torment. Incredibly, he was sacked by the owners of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro after enduring the anguish of that horse’s tragic ending.
Then came Union Rags, who promised to be the three-year-old of this year. Matz was so high on him that late last year, after he had won the Champagne Stakes by five lengths, Matz said: “I thought he would win the Triple Crown.”
Instead, he became the flop of the year. After winning the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, he failed badly as the 2-5 favorite in the Florida Derby and finished a dismal seventh in the Kentucky Derby after problems and questionable rides in both races by Julien Leparoux.
Leading up to the Belmont, Matz never lost faith. He kept reiterating that if Union Rags just got a clean trip he would show his real stuff. He was right on the money. He replaced Leparoux with John Velazquez, the smartest jockey in the land, and that did the trick.
Velazquez got Union Rags out of the gate cleanly, settled him beautifully on the rail, in fourth place, then sent him through on the rail to edge Paynter at the finish.
“It all worked so unbelievable,” Velazquez said. “There aren’t words to describe it. [Matz] liked this horse for so long, and for him to finally rise up to the top again, I’m very, very happy.”
Matz said: “I’m just glad we got to see the real Union Rags.”
It could not happen to a finer man. Matz and his fiancee survived the horrific plane crash of a United Airlines jet on an Iowa farm property in July 1989. Matz then went back into the burning plane and rescued three young children who were traveling unaccompanied.
Baffert has also had a year he will never forget. He was stricken with a heart attack on a visit to Dubai that all but cost him his life. Then he came back to the U.S. only to see Bodemeister lose both the Derby and the Preakness after being hailed the winner at the furlong pole in both races. Then it hit him again yesterday when Paynter just failed to hold off Union Rags.
Smith, who was aboard Bodemeister in both races, put Paynter on the lead in the Belmont and rode a masterly race. He set the horse down to a crawl, getting the six furlongs in 1:14.72. Then he set him down in the stretch and he looked unbeatable — till Velazquez sent Union Rags skimming along the rail.
After the race, Smith blamed himself for losing the race by letting Velazquez through.
“It should never happen to a veteran rider like me,” he said.
He spoke the truth. As they say at the track, he should have “slammed the door” on Union Rags, but he probably thought he had the race won. The race itself was uneventful. Paynter set the fractions ahead of Unstoppable U, Optimizer and My Adonis. The real excitement began when Atigun, a 20-1 longshot, loomed up in the center of the track in the stretch looking to threaten Paynter.
It didn’t last long when Union Rags swept past him, but Atigun held for third. So that’s the Belmont for another year, launched amid a swirl of scandal, battered by a farcical security charade, stunned by the devastating scratch of its star attraction, I’ll Have Another.
But in the end, it turned out to be a fabulous showcase for thoroughbred racing, two of the best of the breed, locked in a grim struggle for superiority at the end of a mile and a half.Follow @NYPostsports