Belmont Stakes 2012: Union Rags Finds Redemption in Anticlimactic Race

Robin JutkiewiczCorrespondent IIIJune 9, 2012

ELMONT, NY - JUNE 09: (EDITORS NOTE: A VARIABLE FOCAL PLANE LENSE WAS USED TO CREATE THIS IMAGE) Union Rags ridden by John Velazquez (R) beats Paynter ridden by Mike Smith (L) at the wire to win the 144th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 9, 2012 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

When I'll Have Another was scratched from the 2012 Belmont Stakes, it took the wind out of fans longing for a Triple Crown champion. As NBC reported live on Saturday, the Cartier Trophy was unceremoniously packed up and sent back to the Kentucky Derby Museum in Churchill Downs for safe keeping, not that the other horses knew or cared. Saturday was another day at the track and they had a job to do.

One such horse was Union Rags, who finally illustrated his power and stamina as he edged out Bob Baffert's Paynter in the final yards of the 1.5-mile race, winning by a head.

Compared to the Kentucky Derby, Michael Matz's charge broke well this time around and quickly tucked mid-pack, hugging the rail. Jockey John Velazquez had to wait for an opening as they rounded the turn and ran for home. He squeezed through to pass Mike Smith and Paynter on the inside as the finish line loomed 100 yards away. Smith ultimately handed the win to Velazquez by sliding off the rail and opening up a hole for Union Rags. He had no one to blame but himself.

As for the other favored Derby horse, Dullahan, he never found his footing, getting stuck behind and running in in the dark throughout the entire race. His charge came too late and from too far back.

Interestingly, Atigun, who is trained by Ken McPeek and ridden by Julien Leparoux, made a good showing taking third. Leparoux was replaced by Velazquez after Union Rags' poor showing at the Kentucky Derby. Third place is nothing to sneeze at, but Leparoux is not half as daring as Velazquez. Guts was what the race required and Velazquez delivered.

As for Baffert, three outings and three second-place finishes has got to sting. Paynter ran a strong race, unfortunately his jockey made a grave error. If Smith had the few seconds needed to undo the decision to allow his colt to drift from the rail, the outcome could have been very different.

For now, the dream of a Triple Crown win is over before it even began. Union Rags will be remembered for running down his opponent, and Mike Smith will forever know he gave it away.