With disappointment filling racing fans’ hearts, the field paraded before the expansive grandstand at Belmont Park for the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes (GI). This was supposed to be a day full of excitement and anticipation, perhaps even a day that would rewrite the history books and end a long drought. Fans had looked forward to I’ll Have Another’s bid for the Triple Crown, but a day before the race, the Kentucky Derby (GI) and Preakness Stakes (GI) victor had been scratched from the race and retired with a tendon issue.
Photo by Terri Cage
But it was the valiant Union Rags that dazzled the crowd of over 85,000 gathered at Belmont Park under cloudy skies. The colt who had shown so much brilliance early on in his career had garnered quite the group of doubters due to losses in the Florida Derby (GI) and Kentucky Derby, but those who kept their faith in the dazzling bay colt held steadfast, maintaining their love for and trust in the Michael Matz trainee.
Union Rags suffered from traffic issues in the Florida and Kentucky Derbies under Julien Leparoux and with these problems, Union Rags’ gallant rallies were hindered, leaving him to finish third and seventh respectively, thus leading many to lose faith in him.
Though overshadowed by I’ll Have Another’s bid for the Triple Crown, Union Rags became my top selection when the Kentucky Derby and Preakness victor was scratched and retired. Though many doubted his ability to get the mile and one-half distance of the Belmont Stakes, I believed in the colt I had followed since his romp in the Saratoga Special Stakes (GII) as a juvenile. His sire, Dixie Union, was sired by Gone West – a producer of several routers, including 2000 Belmont Stakes winner Commendable. In addition, Union Rags’ second dam, Terpsichorist, was capable of winning at twelve furlongs.
So as Union Rags flashed across the wire ahead of Paynter – a colt I had followed since his first race – there was no surprise for me. Rather, I was taken back to a sunny November afternoon beneath the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs – the day before Union Rags ran a game second behind Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI).
It was the day I met Michael Matz, the trainer famous for training 2006 Kentucky Derby victor Barbaro. Of course, Matz’s new superstar was Union Rags, a colt who was entering the Juvenile with three impressive victories, including a romp in the prestigious Champagne Stakes (GI) at Belmont Park. Union Rags was easily my favorite horse in the Juvenile, as well as the horse I felt was the most brilliant. So when I got the opportunity, I asked Michael Matz for his autograph.
Kindly, Matz signed his name next to Union Rags’ name in my program. I was thrilled to have the trainer – an Olympian who had saved four children’s lives in airplane crash in 1989 – have signed my program next to the tremendous colt’s name. It was something I cherished and it became even dearer to my heart when Union Rags captured the Belmont Stakes to score his second grade one and first classic victory.
|Photo by Mary Cage|
As Paynter set the pace, Union Rags settled off the leader, relaxing beautifully beneath John Velazquez, who had the mount aboard the stunning bay for the first time. Paynter, by a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and out of a full sister to two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic victor Tiznow, posted steady fractions while galloping along for the same connections as Bodemeister, I’ll Have Another’s foe in the Derby and Preakness. As the field turned for home, Union Rags was trapped behind a wall of a horses – a situation in which most believed the colt would not be able to handle.
But under the brave Velazquez, Union Rags skimmed the rail as Paynter remained tough, battling Mike Smith’s mount down the stretch at the expansive Belmont Park. There was no longer a Triple Crown on the line, only redemption for Union Rags as the three-year-old Thoroughbreds put on an exciting show in the homestretch before Union Rags got his blazed face in front at the wire.
So, among the exhilaration, a sigh of relief was exhaled among Union Rags’ fans and connections. The Dixie Union colt had finally proved his brilliance, garnered a classic win for Phyllis Wyeth and Michael Matz, shown the doubters that he was capable of great things, earned a classic victory, and stamped himself as a remarkable racehorse. Yes, there was a cloud of disappointment hanging over the Belmont Stakes with the scratch and retirement of dual-classic winner I’ll Have Another, but following the race was a mood of redemption, relief, and love for a magnificent horse named Union Rags.
Since Union Rags was one of my featured “Derby Hopefuls,” you can read more about him here.
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