NEW YORK (Reuters) - Union Rags, patiently ridden by his new rider John Velazquez, won the $1 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday with a late burst up the rails.
The three-year-old colt clinched the final leg of U.S. thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown by overhauling Paynter in the final few strides of the mile and a half (2,414 meter) classic.
“He just works unbelievable and I was just hoping he could put that work into today’s race and he did. I am very proud of him,” Velazquez said.
“This is my home for 22 years, it’s incredible to be here and win it. I don’t have words to describe it.”
Paynter held on to finish second, beaten a neck, while 20-1 outsider Atigun was third, a further one and quarter lengths behind the runner-up.
Dullahan, who was the 5-2 joint favorite with Union Rags, finished out of the placings in the 11-horse field.
The Triple Crown was not up for grabs after I’ll Have Another, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in brilliant fashion, was scratched on the eve of the race after suffering a leg injury.
Union Rags was one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby in May but could only manage seventh after a troubled run.
His connections switched jockeys and decided to skip the Preakness to save him for the Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three classic races.
Before I’ll Have Another won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Union Rags had endeared himself to millions of Americans because of the survival stories of his connections.
His 61-year-old trainer Michael Matz is already a national hero in America. He won the 2006 Derby with the ill-fated Barbaro, who was unbeaten before suffering a life-ending injury at that year’s Preakness Stakes.
Before starting a new career as trainer, Matz won a silver medal in equestrian at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but his sporting success was perhaps the least of his achievements.
Seven years earlier, he survived a plane crash that killed 111 people. Matz not only survived, he led three children to safety and returned to the burning fuselage to rescue an 11-month-old girl.
Union Rags’ owner Phyllis Wyeth also survived a brush with death 50 years ago.
She worked for John F. Kennedy during his presidency but her world was turned upside down in 1962 when she was involved in a head-on car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Confined to a wheelchair, she became an advocate for helping people with physical disabilities, while indulging in her love of breeding racehorses.
She bred Union Rags then sold him at auction, only to have a sudden change of heart when she dreamt that he would do great things.
Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Frank Pingue