By Reid Cherner
ELMONT, N.Y. (USA TODAY)- Union Rags by the narrowest of margins is the 2012 Belmont champion.While the race was overshadowed by the absence of Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another, the finish was eerily similar to both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Once again it was Bob Baffert trained colt who set the pace. Instead of Bodemeister, this time it was Paynter. And just like his stablemate, Paynter led every step of the way until the final yards.
While Paynter was nursing moderate fractions - 1:38.85 for the mile - it was Union Rags who hung tight to the rail the entire 1½-mile trip. At the very end, jockey John Velazquez snuck through and in the final 20 yards ran down Paynter to win by a neck.
Union Rags was the second choice in the race after Dullahan with both going off at 5-2. Union Rags was seventh in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness to be sharp for the Belmont Stakes.
"We really got to see the real Union Rags," said trainer Mike Matz referring to the troubled trip he got in the Kentucky Derby.
I'll Have Another's scratch on Friday completely changed the tenor and importance of the race. He was hoping to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978. Instead, he spent the day posing for pictures and being given a retirement party. And he received some of the biggest cheers of the day from the 85,811 in attendance.
That was okay with Union Rags. The Belmont win is worth $600,000 out of a $1 million purse and guarantees him a spot in racing lore.
"I don't have words to describe it," jockey John Velazquez said of his second Belmont Stakes win. "For (trainer Michael Matz) to finally rise up to the top again, I'm very, very happy.
"I've got to give it to the horse."
The day began under gray skies. Fans who showed up Saturday still bought race programs with I'll Have Another shown galloping across the cover ($5), gobbled Furlong Franks ($7), drank beer ($10 a can) and cheered the horses in earlier races as they pounded down the stretch. But the absence of the Triple Crown contender left a void.
"I was devastated," said Kathy Ronaghan of Harrison, N.Y., who was wearing a small, stuffed horse in her hair. "We've been waiting so long for a Triple Crown winner, back to Smarty Jones (in 2004) and Big Brown (2008). It hurt me."
That didn't stop her from attending Saturday's race. "There's no better day," she said. "I've never been to the Belmont Stakes, although I've been to this track before. My dad took me here, I think in 1980, maybe. ... He taught me how to play the ponies."
When the starting gate opened at the May 5 Kentucky Derby, I'll Have Another was a 15-1 long shot from California with a catchy name. He overtook favored Bodemeister down the stretch and beat him by a length and a half.
The script repeated at the May 19 Preakness in Baltimore. Bodemeister again was the favorite, but I'll Have Another, who had improved to 3-1 odds, again ran him down in the final stretch and beat him by a neck.
That gave the sport of racing - struggling economically and beset by issues of integrity and illegal performance enhancement - three weeks to showcase the chase for the Triple Crown.
The Empire State Building was lit in purple and white - I'll Have Another's colors - on Thursday night. Trainer Doug O'Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez and Canadian owner Paul Reddam were on top of the racing world with a horse purchased for $35,000.
But it all came crashing down Friday morning with news that I'll Have Another was being scratched from the Belmont Stakes and retired from racing due to early tendinitis in his left front leg.
Personally, I was a little sad; I was a little sad, but not disappointed," Gutierrez said Saturday. "Personally, I wanted to be in the race with him, because I know how great he is. I wanted to make history.
"He's the one who brought us here. We have to take care of him."
Bodemeister was not entered in the Belmont Stakes. His trainer, Bob Baffert, instead elected to run Paynter, saying the horse was better suited to the 1½-mile distance of the Belmont than Bodemeister.
At the start of the week, Dullahan was regarded as a prime threat to spoil I'll Have Another's try for the Triple Crown. Dullahan was third at the Kentucky Derby and had bypassed the Preakness, so he came to Belmont Park rested under the direction of trainer Dale Romans.
Asked early in the week how he'd feel about denying a Triple Crown, Romans said, "I'd like to have 120,000 people booing me on the way back to my barn. I can handle it."
But the scratch of I'll Have Another thrust Dullahan into the favorite's role.
"I really wanted him to compete," Romans said of I'll Have Another. "This was going to be a special race, one of the biggest races of our times. ... It would have been better for me to go out there and beat him. ... I wanted to compete with him."
Before I'll Have Another's injury, the big subplot this week was the security barn - the newly required home for all entrants in the Belmont Stakes. Citing racing integrity, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board ordered all entrants to be moved into the security barn by Wednesday. At Triple Crown races, horses typically are housed in barns of their teams' choosing. Entrance to the security barn was closely monitored and all treatments of the horses were logged by state regulators.
The security barn drew gripes from several trainers. "The barn is ridiculous,'' said Romans. He said the new security requirements were a negative for the spot. "I think this causes poor perception, and it makes people think even worse of the game when, really, this is a very clean sport."
In the grassy infield at Belmont Park, 11 standing placards show the names and jockey silks of the 11 Triple Crown winners. There is plenty of room for more, but none will be added this year.
Trainer O'Neill said I'll Have Another would be returned to his home base of Hollywood Park in southern California on Sunday or Monday.