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Union Rags' victory vindicates connections, but raises questions

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images/SI

Union Rags trainer Michael Matz and jockey John Velazquez display the trophy in the winners circle after Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

Michael Matz and Phyllis Wyeth had been waiting for this moment for a long time. So, as Matz stood in the Belmont Park winner's circle moments after his strapping colt Union Rags won Saturday's 144th Belmont Stakes with a brave rail-skimming charge, the trainer noticed something amiss: Wyeth was not there. He hurriedly rushed out of the circle, screaming to anyone who might know, "Where's Phyllis?"

Just then the 71-year-old Wyeth, who has been wheelchair-bound since 2001, came rolling into the winner's circle at top speed, and the whole gang was reunited. Matz gave Wyeth a kiss on the cheek and played traffic cop as she took her place as a Triple Crown race-winning owner.

To many, including a head-shaking Matz after the Belmont, the scene came five weeks too late. Union Rags was the consensus Kentucky Derby favorite for much of the spring, until a combination of -- depending on whom you ask -- poor trips, bad rides and unfortunate luck led to a third-place finish in the Florida Derby and a seventh-place no-show in Louisville.

The Belmont win came after a jockey switch from Julien Leparoux to John Velazquez, whose clean ride atop Union Rags allowed the horse to grind down pacesetter Paynter in the final sixteenth of a mile. This victory both seemed to vindicate the connections of the horse while also raising the more than a few 'What if' questions.

"Believe me, it's sure a lot nicer walking back from the race here than it was after the Kentucky Derby," Matz said. "I'll tell you that."

But on Saturday at Belmont Park, the eye kept glancing at what wasn't there, as if it was the plunging neckline of a Jennifer Lopez red carpet dress. What wasn't there, of course -- at least to race -- was Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I'll Have Another, who was scratched from the Belmont (and subsequently retired) on Friday after his connections found tendinitis in his left foreleg.

Union Rags' winning time of 2:30.42 (the third slowest since 2001) made even the connections wonder if he could've beaten I'll Have Another had that horse not been injured, or if horse racing would instead have its long-awaited 12th Triple Crown winner.

"Whether [Union Rags] could've done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know," Matz said. "But it sure would've been fun to see."

Said Velazquez: "[I'll Have Another] was not in the race, but I thought this was a very salty race. It was a very good race, very competitive race. Even though he was not in the race, we don't know if he would be able to [relax]. We don't know if he would have been able to handle the [Belmont's] mile-and-a-half [distance] or if he was ready for it. I thought it was a very exciting race, and I think the public should be happy with it."

Despite the absence of I'll Have Another (he did walk around the paddock ring several times to the polite applause of the crowd), attendance at Belmont Park took only a minor hit. Saturday drew 85,811, a record for a day when a Triple Crown was not on the line. Still, the total fell shy of the crowds that came to see the last four Triple Crown attempts, in 2008 (94,476), '04 (120,139, a record), '03 (101,864) and '02 (103,222).

What the crowd lacked in numbers, however, it made up for in passion -- especially as the barley and hops began flowing. One reveler in his mid 20s wore a custom t-shirt that had the words I'LL HAVE ANOTHER printed inside the outline of a beer glass. Indeed, I'll Have Another was the theme of the day. Two fans, Jason and Beth Walter, traveled all the from Watford City, N.D., thinking that they'd get a chance to witness at least an attempt at history. Within minutes of I'll Have Another's win in the Preakness on May 19, Jason scored two grandstand seats ($350 each) on StubHub and booked two round-trip airfare tickets ($650 each) for him and his wife. Estimated cost of the trip: more than $2,000.

On Thursday they flew from Minot, N.D., to Providence, R.I. (the most convenient airport to Beth's sister's house in Stonington, Conn.), connecting twice, in Minneapolis and Detroit. They learned of I'll Have Another's scratch, with the rest of the nation, at midday Friday and still decided to trek to Belmont.

"I was quite down," said the 39-year-old Jason, who had never attended a Triple Crown race. "We talked about not going for maybe a minute, but I said, 'No, I want to see this race regardless.' It's still going to be a great trip."

It was, too, a great trip for Union Rags. Finally.

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