ELMONT, N.Y. — It’s a game of inches and a game of chance, as Saturday’s Belmont Stakes once again proved.
At times, there’s only a split second in which a rider must make a decision that will determine the outcome of a race. Aboard Union Rags, jockey John Velazquez was placed squarely on this spot as the Belmont field swung off the final turn into the straightaway leading to the finishing post.
Riding the horse for the first time, all Velazquez really knew was about how Union Rags had been in tight quarters in the Florida Derby when beaten as the favorite and how he had been virtually eliminated by a terrible start in the Kentucky Derby. Though he knew his horse was talented, the question must have persisted in the rider’s mind whether the massive Union Rags also had the trouble of getting in traffic jams without the agility to escape from them.
And there he was, in very tight quarters turning for home with the pace-setting Paynter hugging the rail directly in front of him and Atigun blocking the route to the outside to come around. Velasquez opted to wait and hope, a difficult choice because the chance existed that Paynter would hold the rail,
Atigun would not drop back and, once again, Union Rags would have nowhere to go.
Down the stretch they pounded, with Atigun lugging in to keep the pocket closed. Atop Atigun was Julian Leparoux, who had ridden Union Rags in his past three starts only to be replaced by Velazquez in the aftermath of the Derby debacle.
As the vanguard passed the eighth pole, Atigun fell back just enough for Paynter to feel unthreatened from his outside. The result was that Paynter began to drift out ever so slightly, creating a hole between the rail and his port side.
Velasquez seized the moment and asked Union Rags to go through, but a major issue remained: Would he do it? Many a good horse and quite a few great ones exhibit shyness when confronted with a narrow opening between horses or between the rail
and a rival. Often they refuse to go through.
Union Rags’ response, or lack of it, would likely determine the Belmont’s outcome.
And it was at this instant, about 140 yards from the finish, that Union Rags provided his answer. He surged into the hole, narrowing Paynter’s lead with each stride.
As the leader reached the 16th pole, Union Rags’ nose was at the leader’s saddle girth. And in the last 110
yards, Union Rags asserted his superiority.
“At first, the hole was pretty tight,” Velasquez commented. “I didn’t know it would open up, but I anticipated that it would. When it did, he went through like the strong horse he is.”
“I thought he rode a brilliant race today,” trainer Michael Matz said of Velazquez. “Whether he got up to win or not, it was still a great ride.”
Get up he did, causing Matz to note, “Believe me, it’s sure a lot nicer walking back after races like this than it was after the Kentucky Derby, I can tell you that.”
It’s hard to imagine anything but a bright future for Union Rags and some more pleasant walks for Matz in the near future.