ELMONT, N.Y. - They came - 85,811 of them - knowing that Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another was comfortably situated in Barn 9, waiting to make the trip home to California and a new life at stud.
They came knowing that the impact of winning the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes would probably last as long as it took the cars to clear out of the parking lots.
But what the crowd at Belmont and a national television audience witnessed was a classic case of redemption for Union Rags.
You remember Union Rags, don’t you?
The Michael Matz trained bay colt who came out of his 2-year-old season with a greatness label ready to be stitched on his saddle, but faded slowly and steadily after bad trips in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby? Those races put him into the pretenders rather than the contenders category.
Fingers were pointed everywhere, but most were leveled at jockey Julien Leparoux, whom Matz replaced with veteran Johnny Velazquez. Matz was expecting a better ride on his horse.
On a Saturday, Velazquez provided it and so did Union Rags, who chased down pacesetter Paynter down the stretch, winning by a neck, posting a winning time of 2 minutes and 30.42 seconds, to give a sense of symmetry to the Triple Crown season.
Union Rags was the Kentucky Derby favorite in February and now goes into the summer season ready to state his case as the best - healthy - 3-year-old of 2012.
In a bit of irony, Atigun, ridden by Leparoux, who wanted some redemption for his tarnished status, finished third. Union Rags paid $7.50, $4.20, and $3.40. Paynter returned $5.10 and $3.90, Atigun $10.60.
The festive mood and the build-up that surrounds a Triple Crown-contending race disappeared Friday with the announcement that I’ll Have Another had been scratched with a strained tendon in his left front leg - not a major injury, but one that would sideline him for at least six months. With that option, I’ll Have Another was officially retired.
With the elimination of I’ll Have Another, the Belmont Stakes dropped in class to a million dollar feature race over a mile and a half with 11 good-to-average horses, but no great ones.
The realistic handicapping bent included only three horses, whose credentials appeared to be Belmont-worthy: Dullahan, Union Rags, and Paynter. Everyone else in the field was regarded as a reach, but the Belmont has always been a landing place for long shots- the last four winners were carrying “major upset’’ as part of their race chart.
Dullahan, a third-place finisher in the Derby who skipped the Preakness, was regarded as the most solid of the picks.
The positives for Dullahan were that he was rested and had come flying down the stretch in the Derby to challenge I’ll Have Another. Also, trainer Dale Romans knows what he is doing. The negatives were that in four tries on dirt he had yet to step into the winner’s circle. The criticism looked valid Saturday. Dullahan went off at 5-2 and was a slight favorite over Union Rags but was never a factor.
Union Rags’ credentials were filled with excuses, with most of the blame falling to Leparoux, who had not distinguished himself aboard Union Rags in either the Florida Derby (third) or Kentucky Derby (seventh).
Of the contenders, Paynter offered the most intriguing possibilities. The “other’’ horse in trainer Bob Baffert’s Triple Crown stable, Paynter gained notoriety because he was not Bodemeister, who was runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. After the Preakness, Baffert chose to hold Bodemeister out of the Belmont and use Paynter, who was fresh, was bred for the distance, and had been tabbed by Baffert as the horse with the most promise coming out of his 2-year-old season.
From the start, Baffert’s confidence in Paynter seemed justified. He broke cleanly from the gate and immediately took the lead, posting reasonable times of 23.72 for the quarter and 49.23 for the half.
Coming out of the last turn and facing the longest stretch in thoroughbred racing, Paynter and jockey Michael Smith held the lead, and appeared to have enough strength to hold off any challengers.
But Union Rags was not giving up. With Velasquez avoiding traffic problems that had befuddled and frustrated Leparoux in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, the jockey found a spot on the rail and made his move.
Smith conceded the mistake, saying he should have moved Paynter to the rail and closed off the opening.
Velazquez, as familiar with the Belmont track as any jockey, grabbed the advantage in a flash and pulled even, nudging past Paynter at the finish line.
Velazquez shrugged off Smith’s self criticism.
“There was no way he could see me,’’ said Velazquez. “I was right behind him. I would have done the same thing if I were him.’’
Velazquez, not surprisingly, had the most praise for Union Rags.
“He just worked so unbelievable,’’ said Velazquez, who is now a Belmont Stakes winning jockey for the second time. “I was just hoping that he could put that work into this race and he did. I was very proud of him. It’s an incredible win this race [for Matz]. They liked this horse for so long and for him to finally rise up to the top again, I’m very, very happy for him.’’
Matz was asked if he felt that the fans who had made their plans expecting to see a Triple Crown challenge could be satisfied with the outcome.
“I’m pretty excited,’’ said Matz with a laugh. “I thought it was pretty good.’’
It was an exciting finish, with Union Rags providing the exclamation point on a Triple Crown season that was tarnished by a late scratch.