Union Rags and jockey John Velazquez dug deep in the stretch, squeezed through on the trail and caught Paynter in the final strides to win the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes by a head.
The race had lost its main star yesterday when Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another injured a tendon and had to be scratched from the race and retired from racing.
But even when the meaning of the race today changed forever, the race was one for the ages with its heart-stopping finish.
It was a fair start to all the horses, and Paynter took the lead from the ninth post, followed by Unstoppable U from the inside with Optimizer—who was surprisingly close today—in third place, followed by My Adonis and Union Rags in fifth clear on the inside.
Paynter remained leading the parade through the back stretch, as Optimizer moved to second on the outside and Unstoppable U fell back to third. My Adonis followed and Union Rags remained on the rail, with Velazquez patient waiting for space.
The fractions were legitimate through the first half mile at 23.72 and 49.23, but Mike Smith was able to slow the pace down for the third-quarter pole and take the fraction in 1:14.72.
As they started to round the long far turn, Smith started to urge Paynter and he started to leave Unstoppable U when long shot Atigun took the outside and started his move, looking like a legitimate threat to win at the top of the stretch.
But when Paynter got his mad dash going during the stretch he subdued Atigun; yet as he engaged him, he drifted slightly to the outside and Union Rags finally got the space on the inside to run.
Velazquez then pointed Union Rags towards the small opening and asked for everything he had left. He needed every bit of it and then some as he finally used those long strides of his to catch and pass Paynter in the black zone.
This was truly a strategic battle between two Hall of Fame jockeys who gave us a show today and left everyone cheering for their favorite while standing on their feet during the spectacular run on the final furlong.
It was a vindication of sorts for Michael Matz and Union Rags, who had been so highly regarded before the Derby and finally got the win they looked for—and the fair trip as well.
Paynter showed a lot of guts in just his fifth race, but you can't help but feel bad for jockey Mike Smith, trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat. How much more heartbreak can they take? It was the third straight time they get closely beaten on a Triple Crown race.
They finished second with Bodemeister in the Derby and the Preakness and now once again with Paynter today at the Belmont Stakes.
It was reported on live TV that jockey Mike Smith told NBC reporter Bob Neumeier that he blamed himself for allowing Paynter to drift to the outside, thus allowing John Velazquez to squeeze in and beat him.
But Smith might be beating himself too much here. He had to take Atigun on the outside, and that was the right call for him as he had to take on the horse that came to attack him, which at that moment was Atigun.
Atigun finished third and was valiant and gutsy, but just got tired at the end. Coincidentally, he was ridden by Leparoux the jockey Velazquez replaced aboard Union Rags.
The favorite, Dullahan, never got on the race even with an honest pace. He did get a bit squeezed at the far turn, but was never running his best stride today.
The next graded stakes race that most three-year-old contenders point towards in the season after the Belmont Stakes is either the Jim Dandy (G2) on July 30 and the Travers (G1) on August 25, both at Saratoga.
In the next few days we should learn where all of the top finishers will be headed next.
144th Belmont Stakes | Grade I | Purse: $1 Million | Distance: 12 Furlongs | Track: Fast
|1 ||Union Rags||J. Velazquez||3|
|4||Street Life||J. Lezcano||1|
|5||Five Sixteen ||R. Napravnik ||7|
|6||Unstoppable U||J. Alvarado||2|
|8||My Adonis||R. Dominguez||11|
|9||Ravelo's Boy||A. Solis||6|
|11||Guyana Star Dweej||K. Desormeaux||8|
Winning Owner: Chadds Ford Stable
Winning Trainer: Michael R. Matz
Fractions: 23.72, 49.23, 1:14.72, 1:38.85, 2:04.39
Final Time: 2:30.42