Last Friday was a day that loomed large in horse racing and reverberated throughout the sporting world. Most thought that we were only a day away from possibly seeing a historic, Triple Crown victory by I’ll Have Another. At the least, we were expecting to see the attempt, even if the outcome left us disappointed. The real disappointment came when I’ll Have Another was suddenly scratched, apparently due to a tendon injury in the front left leg. His career has probably come to an abrupt halt.
The show must go on however, and even without the Triple Crown drama, it was still a great race. Despite not having the benefit of a Triple Crown on the line, Belmont Park drew over 85,000 fans and TV ratings were up 13% over last year and up over 70% from 2010, possibly showing that horse racing is on the rise again with the general public. Dullahan was considered by most to be the favorite with I’ll Have Another out, but he never was a factor. Right out of the gate, jockey Mike Smith took Paynter to the lead and he set the pace for the entire trip. Optimizer, My Adonis, and Unstoppable U challenged at different points, but none of them could make a real run at the lead. Union Rags rode the rail for the entire race and really came alive when the finish line came into sight. Jockey John Velazquez was riding Union Rags for the first time and he set a patient pace for his former Kentucky Derby favorite, making a move on Paynter with about three furlongs to go. Union Rags seemed to have a little extra in the tank and his win was reminiscent of the victories that I’ll Have Another pulled off at Churchill Downs in the Derby and at the Preakness Stakes, taking the lead right in the final yards of the race. Paynter finished second, giving trainer Bob Baffert the dubious honor of being second in all three Triple Crown races. Atigun ran third, a couple of lengths behind.
The victory for Union Rags seems to justify some of the hype that surrounded him in the months after the Breeders’ Cup Classic for juveniles where he lost a close one to Hansen. There is a still a lot of racing to be done in 2012 and trainer Michael Matz is likely to take Union Rags to New York for either the Jim Dandy at Saratoga or the Haskell at Monmouth. Either way, the Travers Stakes is probably a certainty in August. I’ll Have Another, who was honored with a retirement ceremony before the Belmont Stakes, is headed back to California with a future that is still a bit cloudy.