For trainer Michael Matz, the Belmont Stakes is a chance for vindication. For jockey John Velazquez, it is a time to prove what he has believed all along: Union Rags is a winner.
Highly favored for the win at the Kentucky Derby last May, Union Rags finished a disappointing seventh place. Jockey Julien Leparoux blew his chance out of the gate, being boxed in within seconds of the bell. He and Union Rags never recovered.
Velazquez was aboard fourth-place Went the Day Well on Derby Day and therefore not available to mount Union Rags, but remains faithful to the colt.
Now in the Belmont Stakes, he expects to take full advantage of the opportunity Leparoux missed to ride the horse to victory. Key to his strategy is not holding back, and Velazquez means business.
"If there isn’t going to be a Triple Crown, this horse is going to do it," Velazquez boasted. "I ride to win the race whether there is a Triple Crown [at stake] or not. I get paid to win, not to finish second."
Owner Phyllis Wyeth didn’t hold back with her criticism of Leparoux. As soon as the race finished, the rider was removed from any consideration to race her horse again.
Nonetheless, Wyeth knows this race won’t be easy. At 1 1/2 miles, every contender will be tested as never before, including the favorite, I’ll Have Another.
Meanwhile, if trainer Doug O’Neill is worried about Union Rags, he’s remaining mum. Rather, I’ll Have Another’s biggest fan is concentrating on his colt’s race and his alone. At this point, that is all he can do.