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Union Rags rides rail to victory in Belmont Stakes

UniRags (right) overtakes Paynter down stretch his way winning Belmont Stakes. | Mike Groll~AP

Union Rags (right) overtakes Paynter down the stretch on his way to winning the Belmont Stakes. | Mike Groll~AP

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Updated: July 11, 2012 10:36AM

NEW YORK — Union Rags picked up where I’ll Have Another left off, coming from behind to catch a Bob Baffert-trained horse at the finish in a Triple Crown race.

Union Rags rallied through an opening on the rail Saturday to edge Paynter by a neck in the Belmont Stakes, dealing Baffert a third loss this year in the Triple Crown series.

I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with stirring stretch drives over Baffert’s Bodemeister. But the champion stunned the racing world Friday when he was scratched from the Belmont and retired because of a tendon injury, relinquishing a shot at the first Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed in 1978.

His absence opened up the race for Union Rags, who had finished a troubled seventh in the Derby. A crowd of 85,811 cheered as Paynter and Union Rags battled down the stretch, and Union Rags barely caught the front-runner at the end to win by a neck.

Trained by Michael Matz, Union Rags skipped the Preakness and switched jockeys for the Belmont — from Julien Leparoux to John Velazquez, who picked up his
second Belmont victory. He also won the race in 2007 with the filly Rags to Riches.

‘‘I have to give it to the horse,’’ Velazquez said. ‘‘He did it all for me. He just worked so unbelievable. I was just hoping he could put that work into today’s race, and he did. I was very proud of him.’’

Union Rags was running along the inside in the middle of the pack until it was time to make a move for the lead. Velazquez guided Union Rags to the inside of Paynter, and he relentlessly closed the gap
before emerging victorious.

Union Rags, who was a 5-2
second choice behind Dullahan, covered 1½ miles in 2 minutes, 30.42 seconds. The colt, who is owned by Phyllis Wyeth, returned $7.50, $4.20 and $3.40. Paynter paid $5.10 and $3.90, and third-place Atigun returned $10.60.

‘‘It was my dream, and he made it come true,’’ said Wyeth, who has been wheelchair-bound since she broke her neck in a car accident in 1962. ‘‘Nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny. That was unbelievable. He just said, ‘Move over, I’m coming.’ He believed in the horse.’’

Paynter and jockey Mike Smith bolted to the lead out of the gate and stayed in front under a moderate pace, with long shots Unstoppable U and Optimizer tucked behind him. Union Rags saved ground by hugging the rail all the way around, while Dullhan dropped back to ninth in the 11-horse field.

Turning for home, Union Rags was full of run but needed an opening. Velazquez had no room to swing outside, so he focused on finding a hole along the rail. It wasn’t clear the opening would materialize
because Paynter continued to lead the way. But Paynter slid off the rail enough to let Union Rags through in the final 16th-mile. And then it was a charge to the finish line.

Union Rags and Paynter raced head-to-head, with both jockeys furiously whipping their horses in the shadow of the wire. Union Rags stuck a neck in front in a finish that was decided by a photo.

‘‘[Velazquez] ran a great, great race, but I’m not too proud of my performance,’’ said Smith, who was aboard Bodemeister in the two earlier defeats. ‘‘I’m an old veteran, you know. They’re not supposed to get through on the fence on me, and he did. I dropped the ball. My fault.’’


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