John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Saturday, June 09, 2012

2012 Triple Crown: What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

ELMONT, NY, June 9, 2012—The shadow of I’ll Have Another and his team still loomed large over Belmont 144 even as Union Rags raced under the wire in front to win the “Test of the Champion” while the presumed divisional champion rested on the sidelines.

We’re not saying that’s fair but that’s the way it’s going to be unless Union Rags runs the table after the Belmont, or it’s Bodemeister, the horse that gave I’ll Have Another the most bang for Reddam’s buck.

Bob Baffert’s speedball will return at the Jersey Shore, if old habits prevail, and he wins the Haskell, if old habits prevail, and he runs the table instead of Union Rags.

But if that sweep by either, or Paynter, who proved his mettle big time over Big Sandy yesterday, doesn’t include a Midsummer Derby, or a Breeders’ Cup Classic, something important at a mile and a quarter, fuhgeddaboudit!

After all, if more Grade 1 victories and a defeat of older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile wasn’t enough for Caleb’s Posse to wrest the three-year-old title away from Derby winning Animal Kingdom last year, then how could a dual Classic winner lose the title?

Under variable skies and a heavy atmosphere, the crowd’s enthusiasm—for the Big Apple--was a bit on the tame side. The crowd responded to “Call to the Post” cues, and Tom Durkin’s “and they’re offs” late in the day but, on balance, they were the quietest 85,811 revelers to show up in Elmont ever.

Maybe they were feeling somber out of some perverse form of respect, who knows?

The crowd on the clubhouse apron when we visited in midday was big and bustling but had I’ll Have Another’s historic bid remained intact, the little walking room available yesterday would have been non-existent.

There was so much security and maintenance folks on the ground when we arrived around 8:15 a.m. The New York Racing Association was ready for a crowd that was halved after Friday’s morning’s shocking announcement.

As I chatted with press box colleagues an hour later, another walked in, head down, shuffling along, saying, to one on in particular, “I feel like they ran the race already.” I checked the big Longines clock 25’ beyond the finish line; it was 9:30.

And if that wasn’t the unintended definition of what anti-climax is, then I never heard one.

About an hour later, a NYRA press release indicated that the notion I’ll Have Another would lead the Belmont post parade beneath Mario Gutierrez was scrapped in favor of a ceremonial retirement ceremony in the winners’ circle before the running of the race.

“Too bad,” cracked one typically cynical turf writer, “it would have been the first time Lava Man was in front at the finish line at any track outside California.”

Horseplayers have long memories.

It was an appropriate ceremony for a horse that was so admired for what he had accomplished and for putting racing above the sports-page fold for the past three weeks.

“This reminds me of Saratoga when NYRA had a day for Funny Cide in the paddock, and Barclay [Tagg] bellowed ‘he ain’t no circus animal.’ He wasn’t even there: Robin [assistant Smullen]” had to lead him over there.

But the whole I’ll Have Another team was in the circle with the colt, both front legs protected and supported by bandages that almost reached his knees.

Doug O’Neill performed his last official act with the colt on a racetrack, one that gave him all the kleiglights he could handle, and the shadows out of which he will need to emerge as his personal saga continues to unfold. Bittersweet is not even the half of it.

Before you knew it—about seven hours later—the horses for the 144th Belmont were on the track to the tones of Old Blue Eyes’ “New York, New York,” the crowd became energized and I couldn’t help but think what the level might have been like had there been a horse seeking immortality.

But they would have to settle for the next best thing; Union Rags, a colt that many thought would try to use the Elmont stage himself to become part of racetrack lore. So he did the next best thing, instead.

He vindicated himself, justified the faith of an owner that bought him back for treble what she sold him for, and enable his teacher, Michael Matz, to escape the midnight horrors and finally get a good night’s sleep.

And he accomplished something else, too; that he made the transition from 2 to 3 after all and that his pedigree was more dam’s side than Dixie Union’s side. The clincher was that he did it from behind. Horses that don’t stay the distance don’t come from behind.

Further, he established his partner, the soon-to-be Hall of Famer John Velazquez, as perhaps the greatest rider of pick-up mounts ever; Johnny V. adding Union Rags to a Classic collection that includes Animal Kingdom and Rags to Riches.

There were other developments during the race that were soaked in irony. Union Rags stayed inside all the way, virtually the same tack taken by former rider Julien Leparoux, the difference being that this time, he never broke stride, much less have his momentum checked.

And there was the other Hall of Famer, finishing second in all three Classic events he appeared to have in hand with two different horses for the same owner and trainer.

Smith called the jocks’ room this week and told one of the valets “I’m coming to win the Belmont Stakes.” “That’s not Mike, he doesn’t say those things,” the valet explained.

And who was that looming up on the outside in midstretch, the one voted most likely to catch the fast and dogged Paynter? Atigun; Julien Leparoux in the boot.

Are you kidding me?

Union Rags once again showed his affinity for Belmont Park by winning for the second time in as many tries. He won the Grade 1 Champagne at 2 despite trouble; Javier Castellano bending him in half in midstretch to secure running room outside the leader.

Castellano was on Belmont favorite Dullahan yesterday, replacing Kent Desormeaux, given “days” by the colt’s connections.

Forced to steady between horses halfway down the long Belmont backstretch, Dullahan never picked it up in a performance that could only be described as dull.

Trainer Dale Romans blamed the racetrack’s dull and cuppy surface; although he didn’t credit the speed kind turf course for Tapitsfly’s upset victory over Winter Memories.

And so Belmont day ended with Union Rags likely vaulting into second place behind I’ll Have Another in the NTRA 3-year-old poll and it will interesting to see how the balance of the season plays out from here.

There is a lot of big three-year-old racing ahead and it’s highly likely to be Union Rags that will be the target of the country’s other top three-year-olds.

But this entertaining, exciting, and very bizarre Triple Crown season is over, and like the man says, all’s well that ends.

Written by John Pricci

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