Union Rags and jockey John Velazquez won the Belmont stakes in exciting fashion, edging out Paynter just before the horses hit the wire. While the title goes to Union Rags, the absence of I'll Have Another and poor jockey performances should cast doubt on just how good the horse is.
Trainer Michael Matz has been praised for his change of jockeys prior to the Belmont Stakes. There were concerns that Julien Leparoux wasn't riding Union Rags properly and that the jockey allowed his horse to get boxed in too easily in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness stakes. According to a Daily Racing Form article by Mike Welsch following the Kentucky Derby:
“When I saw him come by the stands for the first time, I knew we were in big trouble,” Matz said. “The way the track was playing, you had to be closer than 18th. They just weren’t closing like that. We talked about it with Julien and we wanted to be third or fourth coming out of the first turn. There’s a big difference between third and 18th. It seemed like everything Julien tried put him in the wrong situation. I guess he just couldn’t get it done.”
The issue with praising Matz for his move is that Velazquez allowed the same thing to happen at Belmont. Had Mike Smith ran a better race on Paynter he would have beat Union Rags.
Paynter had a decent lead out of the final turn, even though it could have been larger. But Smith allowed him to drift off the rail. Union Rags went from being boxed in, and out of contention, to having a perfect track for the win.
The absence of I'll Have Another also altered the race.
Had the threat of I'll Have Another been lingering behind him, Paynter certainly would have been pushed a little harder down the backstretch. The horse had ample energy at the end of the race and a slight quicker pace was just what he needed to open an insurmountable lead...at least on Union Rags.
Instead Smith became complacent, likely still with the memory of pushing Bodemeister too hard in the Kentucky Derby and having the horse run out of steam over the final half-furlong.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that I'll Have Another would have bettered Paynter down the stretch regardless of the pace. However, a slightly faster pace would have kept Union Rags from catching him.
The real story in the Belmont Stakes wasn't Matz's decision to change jockeys. It was Bob Baffert's decision to stick with Smith after his failed rides in the first two Triple Crown races.
Union Rags showed he is truly a great horse, but he was fortunate to win in New York.
There will be high expectations placed on the colt in the future, but they should be tempered. The loss of the class of the field and a poor effort by Smith were the real stories of the 2012 Belmont Stakes.