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Jun 15, 2012

Union Rags redeems himself in Belmont Stakes

By: By Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In a race that lacked any sort of luster due to the scratching of I'll Have Another, Union Rags picked up the pieces to defeat Paynter by a neck in the slowest (2:30 2/5) Belmont Stakes run on a fast track since 2000.

It also was the third slowest in over 40 years. If I'll Have Another had not gotten hurt, the Triple Crown drought surely would have ended.

Give Union Rags' jockey John Velazquez credit for a fantastic ride as he guided the winner up the rail to nail Paynter in the final strides. This was his second career Belmont win and his first since 2007 when he was aboard the filly Rags to Riches.

Union Rags went off as the 5-2 second choice in the field of 11 while Paynter was the 4-1 third choice. Dullahan, the favorite, never threatened and ran a dismal seventh.

In what has to be considered an extraordinary achievement in defeat, jockey Mike Smith, trainer Bob Baffert and owner Zayat Stable finished second in all three Triple Crown races with two different horses. First Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and now Paynter in the Belmont Stakes.

Paynter looked like a winner down the backstretch after he slowed down the pace to a crawl with a 25 3/5 second quarter followed by another quarter-mile in 25 2/5. However, Union Rags maintained solid positioning on the inside and was only a few lengths behind after a mile in 1:38 4/5.

Still, it was far from a two-horse race when the field approached the top of the stretch as 20-1 Atigun made a bold move in the four-path and gained ground on the leaders.

Into the stretch, Paynter held a length lead as Atigun tired on the outside and Union Rags was in tight on the inside. With one furlong remaining, it appeared the lightly raced colt would hold on for the victory.

Unfortunately for his connections, there was a small hole on the rail and Velazquez, doing his best Calvin Borel imitation, squeezed through to get the job done. Atigun held on for third, some five lengths ahead of Street Life.

For all that this Belmont Stakes could have been, at least the race itself was somewhat predictable. Two of the top three choices filled the exacta and the only other logical contender came in third.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It would take a miracle for I'll Have Another not to win the Eclipse Award as this year's top 3-year-old. The only way he'll be denied is if Union Rags triumphs in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga this summer and then wins the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita in early November. Based on his performance in the Belmont Stakes, it's doubtful he will prevail in both those events.

As for Bodemeister, look for him to return to the races in the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park on July 29. A win in the 1 1/8-mile race would set him up nicely for battle with Union Rags in the Travers. If the Derby-Preakness runner-up hits the jackpot in those two races, he has an outside chance to snatch the award away from I'll Have Another if he can complete the trifecta in the BC Classic.

The fact the two-day event will be held at Santa Anita gives him the hometown advantage. However, knocking off older horses at 1 1/4 miles might be asking a lot from a colt that has already failed over 10 furlongs and even at 1 3/16 miles.

The biggest disappointment in the Belmont Stakes has to be Dullahan. The Blue Grass Stakes winner had no excuse. It is true he did not show his new-and- improved early quickness, but that did not cost him a chance to hit the board. He was right alongside Atigun, the third-place finisher, for the first third of the race. The horse just didn't have it on Saturday.

As for Paynter, it is obvious the son of Awesome Again sports a ton of talent. It's not often a horse can run second in a 1 1/2-mile Grade I race with only four previous starts, let alone finishing fourth in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby off a maiden win in his 5 1/2-furlong debut.

Expect Baffert to keep Paynter away from Bodemeister as both colts have the same exact running style. It also is not out of the question that Paynter winds up the better of the two horses come the end of the year.

The story of the first half of 2012 was I'll Have Another. The story of the second half has yet to be determined, but based on the result of the Belmont Stakes, look for Paynter to challenge both his stablemate and Union Rags for the supremacy.

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