“He was looking out the door, waiting to get outside,” said Matz of Union Rags, who departed Belmont Park several hours after his neck victory over Paynter in the 1 ½-mile “Test of the Champion.” “He got out [to the paddock], had a little roll, started to eat some grass and watched the other horses walk to the track and training.”
“It was an awfully small hole for such a big horse to fit through,” he said. “I have to give him and Johnny credit. They got it done.”
Union Rags, who won the Grade 2 Three Chimneys Saratoga Special as a 2-year-old, could make a return appearance to Saratoga Race Course this summer, said Matz.
“At this point right now I think what we’ll do is look at some of those, whether it’s the Haskell [at Monmouth Park], the Jim Dandy [Grade 2, $600,000, July 28], the Travers [Grade 1, $1 million, August 25], whatever, one of those races down the line with a little time in between,” he said.
Matz conceded that while the newly retired I’ll Have Another was clearly the leading 3-year-old off his victories over Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he “wasn’t throwing in the towel, by any means” when it came to a second-half bid for an Eclipse Award.
“It all depends on how we finish the season,” he said. “They ran one time against each other and that was it. He was very impressive in those two races he ran with Bodemeister. Again, I was so confused with the voting last year as a 2-year-old [Union Rags was second to Hansen], who knows what can go on?”
Union Rags, who was 3-1-0 from four starts as a 2-year-old, including a victory in Belmont’s Grade 1 Champagne and a second to Hansen in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth to kick off his 2012 campaign, and then finished third in the Grade 1 Florida Derby and seventh as the 5-1 second choice in the Kentucky Derby.
Asked if during that time he lost confidence in the Dixie Union colt, who is owned by Phyllis Wyeth, Matz simply said: “No.”
“I wasn’t sure with the 1 ½ miles,” he said. “I’m sure all the other trainers were not sure whether their horses could get 1 ½ miles. Nobody knows that. Obviously, we did get the 1 ½ miles good enough. I just thought he needed to run in one of those Triple Crown races. He deserved it. I’m glad we did [run].”
* * *
Before leaving for Monmouth Park, where he was scheduled to ride morning-line favorite Data Link for trainer Shug McGaughey in the Grade 3, $200,000 Monmouth Stakes, jockey John Velazquez was on the Belmont Park backstretch reflecting on his thrilling victory aboard Union Rags in the 144th Belmont Stakes.
Velazquez, who will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. later this summer, guided Union Rags through a narrow opening on the rail and caught pacesetter Paynter to win the 1 ½-mile Belmont by a neck.
“I knew it was going to be a good race,” Velazquez said. “We didn’t have I’ll Have Another in the race, but I knew it was going to be a very good race, a very interesting race, and it was.
“I rode him with a lot of confidence. I thought he had the talent to do it. I was just hoping that I got a little room to run and that he would respond when I wanted him to, and he did. I was very lucky. Very lucky.”
Velazquez rode Union Rags for trainer Michael Matz, replacing Julien Leparoux, who had been aboard in his previous three races, including tough-trip losses in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.
It was the third career victory in a Triple Crown race for Velazquez, who captured the 2007 Belmont with filly Rags to Riches and the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, both on inherited mounts, the latter coming just the day before the race.
“All my [Classic] wins are horses that I picked up. It’s incredible,” Velazquez said. “After riding so many good horses all these years … some of the best horses I’ve been on didn’t make the Derby. I guess that’s part of the business, and I guess that’s the way it was meant for me. Some people get lucky and get a good horse.
“Look at [I’ll Have Another’s jockey] Mario [Gutierrez]. You get a good horse and he brings you to the Derby, and you win the Derby and the Preakness. I guess that’s the way it goes. For me to be here and win it here is incredible. It’s home for me. Winning the race makes it extra special.”
Velazquez felt that the Belmont victory helped validate Union Rags.
“People forgot about this horse,” Velazquez said. “This horse was one of the first choices for the Derby, and he had a bad race in the Derby and right away everybody forgot about him. Everybody got off the bandwagon. We know from Derbies before that many good horses go to the Derby and don’t run very well for whatever reason. They can break bad or get a bad trip, and they can’t run their best races. He was one of them. All I know is, I’ve been watching this horse for a long time, and he’s a very, very good horse.”
Matz had wanted Velazquez to ride Union Rags throughout the Triple Crown, but the jockey couldn’t give a three-race commitment due to his ties with Animal Kingdom. Velazquez hopes to be aboard the rest of the year.
“I’m willing to stay with him, no problem … until they fire me,” Velazquez joked. “Whatever they want to do.”
* * *
Belmont Stakes runner-up Paynter will head back to California Monday morning with plans to return to New York this summer for the Grade 1 Travers on August 25, trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday morning.
“He’ll go back home, freshen up, and we’ll look to bring him back somewhere on the East coast,” said Baffert. “Maybe the Jim Dandy [Grade 2, July 28] – we’re shooting for the Travers with him. We have [Derby and Preakness runner-up] Bodemeister for the Haskell.”
With the exception of a nick on his left hind leg, Paynter returned from his neck loss to Union Rags in good shape, said the Hall of Fame trainer.
“He lost his left hind shoe in the race,” he said. “I don’t know when it happened, but it must have been near the end.”
Baffert said he, as well, emerged from the race in fairly good shape.
“Second is still sinking in,” he said.
* * *
Trainer Ken McPeek was pleased with the performances of his two long-shot runners Saturday in the Belmont Stakes and already has begun plotting ambitious plans for them.
Magdalena Racing and Mojallali Stables’ Unstoppable U made noise in the 1 ½-mile race early before tiring to finish sixth, and Shortleaf Stable’s Atigun rallied from mid-pack to finish a close-up third, just 1 ¾ lengths behind winner Union Rags and runner-up Paynter.
At 12-1 for Unstoppable U and 20-1 for Atigun, both outran their odds.
“Our horses came out of the race fine,” McPeek said on Sunday. “We asked a lot out of Unstoppable U,” who tracked the pace of Paynter for a mile in only the third start of his career. “He ran a great race. We'll look for a Grade 2 or Grade 3 for him, [or] possibly the Haskell.”
Atigun, McPeek said, is headed for Saratoga Race Course this summer.
“Atigun came out fine, too,” he said. “We’ll probably go to the Jim Dandy and the ultimate goal will be the Travers.”
* * *
Trainer Chad Brown reported Sunday morning that Street Life was drained but healthy following his fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.
“He came out of the race in good shape,” he said. “He’s a little tired, but he looks sound. We’re just going to regroup and think about our next spot with him.”
Under jockey Jose Lezcano, Street Life raced near the back of the 11-horse field through moderate fractions set by the front-running Paynter, closing down the stretch on the far outside and was beaten 7 ¼ lengths.
“I was a little disappointed the horse didn’t show a little more interest early and naturally lay closer,” Brown said, “but he tends to be a lazy kind of horse. He just didn’t have good position early, and then lacked the turn of foot to really make a serious impact on the top three finishers. All things considered, I thought the horse ran fairly well. He put his run in; it wasn’t good enough.”
Brown was complimentary of Belmont winner Union Rags, who rebounded from two tough-trip losses to rally along the rail and beat Paynter by a neck.
“It was an outstanding day of racing that Belmont Park put on, and I think the Belmont Stakes in particular was an outstanding race,” he said. “Yeah, we lost a major player in I’ll Have Another, and everyone was disappointed with that; however, I think the best horse won the race. Union Rags showed at 2 that he was one of the best horses in the crop, if not the best horse. I think he validated that again yesterday. I think he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with the rest of the year. He’s not a horse that I’d be looking to run against if I had the choice.”
Looking ahead, Brown said he would consider the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course for Street Life, who has two wins, a third and a fourth in six career races.
“I’m going to point him toward the Jim Dandy and just see what’s happening,” he said. “I want to back him up in distance and hopefully get more pace to run into. He’s got something to prove. He’s been knocking on the door, but he needs to be a little faster to beat these horses. I’m going to give him the opportunity to continue to develop into the kind of horse that can make a stronger impact in these races. I think he still has a lot of upside, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet.”
* * *
Trainer Dale Romans expressed disappointment following Dullahan’s seventh-place finish in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes but said he is eagerly anticipating next year’s Triple Crown series.
“I can’t wait until next year,” said Romans. “Hopefully, we’ll have another one. Emotionally, the highs, the lows, the battles, but I want to do it every year.”
Romans admitted he wrongfully expected Dullahan, who went off as the 5-2 favorite, to run a huge race in the Belmont.
“I’m usually not that wrong with them,” said Romans. “I’m wrong about a lot of things, but usually with the horses I’m not. You can know your horse is doing good, but there are so many other factors that play into a race, and if the other horses are doing well it’s tough.”
Dullahan, a two-time Grade 1 winner on Keeneland’s Polytrack, is winless in five starts on dirt but was a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Churchill Downs’ conventional main track. Romans remains adamant that the Donegal Racing color-bearer is capable of winning big races on dirt.
“I don’t think he was handling the track [in the Belmont Stakes]; it was deep and cuppy,” said Romans. “I haven’t given up on him being a dirt horse. I think he needs it a little tighter.”
Romans suggested that Dullahan might have performed better if the Belmont main track was like it had been when the colt breezed four furlongs in 45.97 six days before the race.
“[The track] was little tighter on Sunday,” said Romans. “We had that rain. I was hoping we’d get a little water on it yesterday. It would have helped us.”
With Dullahan being a dual Grade 1 winner on Polytrack, a stakes winner on turf, and Classic-placed on dirt, Romans and Donegal have many options to choose from going forward.
“I have no idea [what his next start might be],” said Romans. “We’ll sit down and talk the next few days. We’ll figure it out.”
By any other standard, Romans had an excellent Saturday as he landed two stakes: Belmont’s Grade 1, $500,000 Longines Just a Game with Tapitsfly, who shot to the early lead and turned back Winter Memories to prevail in stakes-record time, and Churchill Downs’ Opening Verse with Guys Reward.
“Nobody was going to catch [Tapitsfly] the way she ran yesterday,” said Romans. “She came home in 22 and change. You gotta run awful fast to make up ground into that. This is a good mare, and she’s getting better all the time. She loves to race and loves to run; it makes her better. She’s one of those where the more you do the more she likes it.”
Although Romans said one mile is probably Tapitsfly’s optimum distance, he said the 5-year-old will be pointed for the Grade 1, $600,000 Diana at 1 1/8 miles on July 28 at Saratoga Race Course.
“[The Diana is] something we’ll think about,” said Romans. “I think she can stretch, but I do think a mile is the best distance for her. It depends on who is going to be there, but we’ll point in that direction.”
* * *
Trinniberg picked up his third graded stakes victory this year on Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park, taking the Grade 2 Woody Stephens presented by VisitNassauCounty.com.
Sunday morning, the 3-year-old Teuflesberg colt was said to be in good spirits.
“He’s doing very nice,” said owner Shivananda Parbhoo, who campaigns the colt with his father, trainer Bisnath Parboo. “He’s happy, he ate all his food, everything is good on his side.”
Trinniberg, runner up in two graded stakes last summer at Saratoga, started his sophomore campaign with a victory in Gulfstream Park’s Grade 3 Swale Stakes, followed by an easy win in Aqueduct’s Grade 3 Bay Shore. He finished 17th when stretched out for the Kentucky Derby, and yesterday made a triumphant return to sprinting as he led at every call to take the seven-furlong Woody Stephens by 1 ¾ lengths.
“I was thinking about running him at Calder, but he’s done a lot of work this year so far,” said Parbhoo. “I’m going to give him two weeks off and we’ll train him for the [Foxwoods] King’s Bishop [Grade 1, $500,000, seven furlongs on August 25 at Saratoga].”
Trinniberg’s win was bittersweet for the family after their New York-bred champion sprinter Giant Ryan fractured both left front sesamoids during the running of the Grade 2 True North Handicap earlier in the day on Saturday
“He’s OK this morning, not good, but OK,” Parbhoo said of Giant Ryan, who remained stabled overnight at Belmont. “He ate his food last night, and drank a lot of water, which is a good sign.”
Parbhoo said that the current plan was for Giant Ryan to have surgery in an attempt to repair the fracture so he could go on to a stud career, but that nothing was firmly scheduled.
“We’re waiting on a call from the doctor and then we’ll ship to the hospital, most likely New Bolton [at the University of Pennsylvania]. I’m hoping for today, but waiting for their call.”
* * *
He didn’t have a horse in the Belmont Stakes for the first time since 2005, but that doesn’t mean trainer Todd Pletcher didn’t have a good day.
The Pletcher-trained Caixa Eletronica made a 12-day turnaround to reel in Justin Phillip and win the Grade 2, $400,000 True North Handicap by three-quarters of a length on the Belmont undercard.
It was the third win in five starts this year for the 7-year-old son of Arromanches and second in a graded stakes, following the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic on April 14.
“He came out of the race excellent,” Pletcher said. “I thought his Charles Town race was pretty impressive, but this race was probably his most visibly impressive, with the late kick he showed.”
Justin Phillip led through blazing fractions of 21.80, 44.58 and 56.64 before jockey Javier Castellano and 7-2 favorite Caixa Eletronica came calling down the lane.
“At the three-eighths pole, I thought we were in trouble,” Pletcher said. “I thought he had dropped too far back. Our strategy was to let him settle and make one run. It looked like there was a lot of speed in the race. At the half-mile pole, my first reaction was that he’s not going to fire today; coming back in 12 days was too soon, and he’s running a little flat. When I saw Javier angle toward the inside, I thought he figured he must have horse, so he’s going to take a shot. He exploded down the lane. He really did.”
Pletcher has plenty of options with Caixa Eletronica, who pushed his career record to 18 wins from 54 lifetime starts, with seven seconds, 11 thirds and $1,395,705 in earnings.
“He’s literally one of those horses that you can say could run in any race coming up on the dirt,” he said. “Everybody wants to talk about what’s bad about the game; he’s everything that’s good about horse racing. He’s durable, he’s consistent. He came from nowhere, with a thousand-dollar stud fee, maybe. It shows you a horse from that type of background can come up and compete at the highest level with horses that cost millions of dollars. He’s a cool horse.”
Pletcher hopes to still have an impact on the 3-year-old division. Although he said neither Algorithms or El Padrino are likely to return to racing until the fall, he is thinking of the Travers for Grade 1 winner Gemologist.
Gemologist suffered his first career loss in the Kentucky Derby on May 5, and came out of the race with a foot injury that has kept him on the sidelines. He is back in Pletcher’s barn and is likely to get his first breeze back this wee
“He was at [owner] WinStar [Farm] for about 2 ½ weeks, three weeks after the Derby,’ Pletcher said. “He had a foot bruise. I don’t know if he stepped on something or what happened, but two days after the Derby he was pretty lame. He’s back in training; he just hasn’t breezed yet. We’ll look at the Travers and maybe the Jim Dandy or Haskell before it.”
* * *
Trainer Doug O’Neill, assistant Jack Sisterson and the rest of the I’ll Have Another crew watched Saturday’s Belmont Stakes on television in the barn office of trainer Mark Hennig.
Less than an hour before the race, I’ll Have Another was given a ceremonial retirement in the paddock at Belmont Park, a day after the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was scratched from the race with tendinitis in his left foreleg.
“It was a strange feeling,” Sisterson said Sunday morning. “We finished parading him in the paddock and were coming back, and you see everybody else getting ready to go [to the track]. When we were coming back, [the horse] knew that, ‘Hey, this is not right. I want to go race.’
“The guys took it really well. To get this far … going into it, if somebody said you could win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but not run in the Belmont, I think everybody would have taken that. It’s been such a great journey. To work for somebody like Doug, who gave us all the opportunity like this, is the chance of a lifetime. It really was fantastic.”
I’ll Have Another was bidding to become the first horse in 34 years to sweep the Triple Crown. Instead, he was the first horse since 1936 to claim the first two legs and be unable to compete in the third.
“He looked impressive this morning, as always. He’s never once looked bad,” Sisterson said. “It’s a bit of a bummer, especially the way the race shaped up. His running style would have fit the race to a ‘T.’ All the credit to Union Rags and Paynter, they ran a big race. The rest of them were just kind of going up and down, and this guy would have tried to take advantage of that. Mario [Gutierrez] is a great jock, and he would have judged the pace and would have been right there, ready to press the button turning for home. That’s horse racing. You’ve got to turn the page and keep moving forward.”
I’ll Have Another is scheduled to leave New York at 8 a.m. Monday and head back to O’Neill’s California base.
“We’re packing up and shipping out,” Sisterson said. “Hopefully, we’ll be back.”