America finds new hero in Union Rags after injury ends a Triple Crown dream

 

It might have been a John Terry moment, but thankfully was not. Before the Belmont Stakes on Saturday night, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I'll Have Another, deprived of his chance of a Triple Crown on the eve of the New York race by a leg injury, was taken to the winner's circle anyhow for a ceremonial retirement.

The thought of his connections, trainer Doug O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam, was that the 85,000 fans who had turned out for the last of the three famed US Classics would like to see the colt who had been on the brink of immortality. They did; they gave the chestnut, and the back-room team who accompanied him in the stable's trademark yellow caps, a heartfelt ovation.

Then, after some photocalls with jockey Mario Gutierrez, O'Neill gave the colt a couple of grateful pats and removed his saddle, before I'll Have Another was led off the racetrack for the last time, to begin his life as a progenitor in due course.

The cheers that he earned were tinged with many regrets; he and his Triple Crown bid had been seen as a welcome boost for a sport in decline in the States. But though his absence from the Belmont Stakes removed some of the lustre from the contest, the symbolic rite of passage over his departure, completed nearly an hour before post-time, did not intrude on the subsequent glory for those who were actually on the pitch.

And if some dreams were shattered by I'll Have Another's exit, others were fulfilled as the nearly horse, Union Rags, the 5-2 joint-favourite, finally came good, squeezing home by a short-neck in a thrilling dénouement to the $1m (£650,000) mile-and-a-half contest.

The colt, ridden for the first time by John Velazquez, gave his trainer Michael Matz, a former world-class showjumper, his first Belmont Stakes and his second US Classic, after ill-fated Barbaro's Kentucky Derby six years ago.

The trailblazing 4-1 runner-up, Paynter, who was caught only in the final strides, provided a frustrating action replay for trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Mike Smith and owner Ahmed Zayat. The team's Bodemeister had finished runner-up to I'll Have Another at Churchill Downs and Pimlico in virtually identical fashion.

If Smith had not allowed his mount to drift off the rail in the closing stages, the result may have been different. Union Rags, hugging the rail and full of running, was prevented from making a wide challenge by the ultimate third, Atigun, running out of his skin at 20-1. But then the gap came, and the powerful, handsome and determined Union Rags went through it.

"I had to wait for a hole to open up and I got lucky," said his New York-based rider, who also won the Belmont on Rags To Riches in 2007. "The horse did it all. I was very proud of him."

The white-blazed bay, deprived of last year's juvenile champion status when beaten by a short-head by Hansen at the Breeders' Cup meeting, justified the faith of both his trainer and owner. "We always thought he had potential for Triple Crown races," said Matz. "When he has a clean trip he can show himself for real, and he's one of the best of his generation. Whether he could have done something against I'll Have Another, we'll never know. But it would have been fun to see."

Union Rags was bred by Phyllis Wyeth, in a wheelchair since 1962 after a car crash. She sold the colt at auction as a yearling for $145,000 before buying him back in February last year for $390,000. "I had a dream he would make it," she said, "so I had to have him back."

In Paris yesterday, Thousand Stars, trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh, won his second successive Grand Course des Haies at Auteuil. The grey, the 15-8 favourite, swooped after the last to take the £138,000 prize for France's top hurdles contest at the expense of local fancy Nikita Du Berlais.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap: Wells Lyrical (7.20 Pontefract)

Has winning form on today's track and underfoot conditions and last month's seasonal debut will have blown the cobwebs away. Tends to run keenly but top-class hands on the reins will help him settle.

Next best: Smoky Cloud (3.45 Folkestone)

Dropping down the handicap and gave some hope he might take advantage last time out, his first run for a new yard after a break. He steps back to his optimum trip today.

One to watch: High Standing (Jeremy Gask) is not as good as he was when he was keeping top sprint company two years ago but, judging by his strong-finishing effort at Newmarket on Saturday, there is still a decent prize in him.

Where the money's going: Despite doubts about his participation in the Royal Hunt Cup at Ascot next week, Edinburgh Knight was backed from 16-1 to 12-1 yesterday with Paddy Power.

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