Sometimes change is good. On Saturday afternoon it proved to be the difference in the final jewel of the 2012 Triple Crown trail.
After Union Rags' well-chronicled bad trip in the Kentucky Derby, trainer Michael Matz decided to make a jockey change from Julien Leparoux to John Velazquez, a jockey who will be inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in August in Saratoga Springs. Velazquez may be the most accomplished of the New York-based riders, winning the New York Racing Association (NYRA) circuit (Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga combined) championship four times in addition to 22 meet titles. He knows Belmont Park and its big sweeping turns and definitive landmarks as well as any jockey in the land.
With Velazquez aboard for the first time, Union Rags, whose 2-year-old championship season was upended at Churchill Downs last November in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, redeemed himself on Saturday afternoon before 85,811 race fans. Many of those fans had anticipated an opportunity at seeing a Triple Crown attempt that was thwarted on Friday morning by the scratch of I'll Have Another due to a lower tendon injury to his left leg.
Velazquez ended up thrilling the beefed-up crowd with his second career Belmont Stakes victory, ironically on another Rags. In the 2007 Belmont, he won his first-ever Triple Crown race on Rags to Riches, the first filly to win the Belmont since 1905.
The win was the colt's second Grade 1 win over the track known as Big Sandy; he won the one mile Champagne Stakes here last October. The Belmont was his second win of the year, the first coming in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes in February. He faltered in his final Derby prep race, the Florida Derby, where he finished a disappointing third.
The victory was the first Triple Crown victory for trainer Michael Matz since the 2006 Kentucky Derby with Barbaro. He was ecstatic to find the winner's circle again in a classic race and pondered what could have been had the Derby and Preakness champ raced.
"I do really think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, is one of the best 3-year-olds in this crop," Matz said. "Whether he could have done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know, but it sure would have been fun to see."
It's a good thing that trainer Bob Baffert's heart issues were detected prior to the Triple Crown season in March in Dubai. As exhilarating as the victory was for the Union Rags' team, the race was heartbreaking for Baffert, jockey Mike Smith and owner Zayat Stables.
They finished a second for the third Triple Crown race, this time with Paynter, a maturing 3-year-old colt. Paynter almost stole the race gate-to-wire, for if not for Velazquez sliding through an opening on the rail in the closing yards. Baffert could only smile wryly and ask, "Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?"
Smith gushed over his colt after the race but knew he broke one of the jockey commandments of letting a horse through on the rail. "He ran tremendous. I'm such a perfectionist. [Union Rags] just shouldn't have gotten through on me. I'd like to see what the outcome would have been if he wouldn't have. I haven't had the chance [to talk to Bob Baffert]. I'm sure he doesn't want to speak to me right now," said the beaten jockey.
It was the third straight classic race in which Smith was overtaken in the final yards before the wire, the first two on Bodemeister, who is pointed next at the Haskell at Monmouth Park in July. As for Paynter, it looks like he's pointed towards Saratoga and the Travers Stakes, where at 1 1/4 miles he will be a threat. Last year's Belmont runner-up, Stay Thirsty, came back to win the Jim Dandy and the Travers at Saratoga.
It's been as exciting a Triple Crown season as we've had in a number of years, which bodes well as we head into the summer racing season at Saratoga and Monmouth. While we lost a champion this weekend due to an untimely injury, we may have gained a few more stars in Union Rags and Paynter, who along with Bodemeister are carrying the torch for the remainder of the year.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He will be live blogging from Belmont Park today on the Sports, Ink blog and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).