Deprived of the opportunity to have a Triple Crown winner, the 144th Belmont Stakes still had plenty of drama as Union Rags surged along the rail to get the win.
In beating Paynter by a neck, Union Rags, who is based at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., gave trainer Bob Baffert his third second-place finish in this year's three Triple Crown races. After I'll Have Another defeated Baffert's Bodemeister in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the trainer decided to run Paynter in the Belmont instead.
What makes the Belmont Stakes so difficult is its mile-and-a-half length, foreign to 3-year olds. But in Saturday's 11-horse field, the pivotal distance was a matter of inches. As Paynter drifted away from the rail down the stretch, he created an opening that was just inches wide, which allowed Union Rags just enough room to get through and win the race by a neck.
"Nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny [Velazquez] today, I can tell you that," said Phyllis Wyeth, 71, Union Rags' ecstatic owner, a former accomplished steeplechase rider and wife of the artist Jamie Wyeth. "That was unbelievable. He just said, 'Move over I'm coming.'"
Though the finish was exciting, there's no doubt that the withdrawal of I'll Have Another, who was favored to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, reduced a potentially historic race to a more common event.
I'll Have Another, the chestnut colt who used his outstanding closing speed to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was scratched from the field and retired Friday after his handlers received a diagnosis of tendinitis in his left leg.
The crowd of 85,811 was less than the 100,000 promoters expected had there been a Triple Crown at stake, but nearly a 54 percent increase over last year's crowd of 55,779.
The presence of I'll Have Another was felt throughout the day. A significant number of men wore purple neckties, a nod to I'll Have Another's purple silks, and vendors distributed free posters of the colt.
I'll Have Another was ceremoniously retired in the winner's circle, approximately 40 minutes before post time. Jockey Mario Gutierrez, clad in a shirt and necktie was in the saddle. As flashbulbs popped, Gutierrez dismounted, and trainer Doug O'Neill removed the colt's saddle. He was led away by a groom, and accompanied by his stable pony Lava Man.
I'll Have Another retired with seven starts, and an undefeated record in 2012, a great year in which he was just one win away from capturing the Triple Crown.