Jockey John Velazquez, right, drives Union Rags past Paynter and jockey… (Garry Jones / Associated…)
ELMONT, N.Y. — — The skies were overcast here Saturday when they ran the 144th Belmont Stakes. So was the mood.
Certainly, there were bright spots. Even at its lowest ebb, horse racing sprinkles those in. There are always winning bets to cash, celebrants gathering for group photos, hopes for the next race.
There is always another race, which is pretty much what this year's Belmont was. Another race.
Union Rags was Saturday's main bright spot. He won the grueling mile-and-a-half race for a true American hero. His trainer is Michael Matz, 61, who, on July 9, 1989, dragged four children out of a flaming plane crash in Sioux City, Iowa. A total of 111 died that day on United Airlines Flight 232.
Before he trained thoroughbreds, Matz was a world champion show horse rider, a three-time U.S. Olympian and a team equestrian silver medalist in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He was chosen to carry the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies that year.
Still, somehow fittingly on this day, Matz is probably best known for training 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who broke down in the next leg of the Triple Crown series, the Preakness. Barbaro stayed prominent in the media in the aftermath, as doctors attempted to save the horse from what is usually a life-ending injury. Ultimately, they failed, but Barbaro became — and remains — a symbol of what ails horse racing and often turns fans into disgusted dissidents.
That brings us back to Saturday's mood.
This was to be yet another pursuit of racing's coveted Triple Crown.I'll Have Anotherhad won the Derby and Preakness and seemed ready and able to achieve something that hadn't been done since Affirmed won all three races in 1978. Racing had its first real celebrity since Zenyatta, and the media crescendo was leading the public back into racing.
But trainer Doug O'Neill found an ankle injury Friday morning, scratched I'll Have Another from the race, then retired him, and the air went out of the balloon.
They paraded poor I'll Have Another out for a ceremony in the winner's circle. The original plan, after the announcement of his withdrawal from the race, was to have him lead the parade to the post for the Belmont, but that sounded silly and smelled of a panic ticket-sales pitch. Instead, they saddled up I'll Have Another one more time, walked him to the winner's circle, had jockey Mario Gutierrez climb aboard one more time — this time in white shirt and tie — and had O'Neill ceremoniously unsaddle him a last time. O'Neill, who had wowed everybody in racing since the moment he won the Kentucky Derby with his willingness to cooperate with all racing and media requests, had done it one more time.
At best, it was just one more photo op. At worst, it was unneeded schmaltz. Who knows? It might have helped keep a crowd expected to be around 120,000 before the I'll Have Another scratch to a nice 85,811. Maybe it will start a racing ritual, kind of like wrestlers, who retire by putting their shoes on the mat.
But an injured horse being paraded out en route to stud-farm oblivion seemed even less fitting in light of what happened four races before the $1-million Belmont.
A 6-year-old named Giant Ryan, who had won six races in a row from March to October of last year, was charging down the home stretch between two other horses in the $400,000 Grade II True North Handicap. He was carrying the most weight in the race — 120 pounds — when his left foreleg broke. His jockey did his best to pull him up, but about 50 yards from the finish, Giant Ryan collapsed and dumped Willie Martinez, who popped up and tried to hold and stabilize the injured leg.
Immediately, the grim scene that always sends so many dashing permanently for the exits played out. Men came with a giant screen to spare the crowd from the ugly sight of animal in distress. The equine ambulance arrived, a boot was put on the horse so he could be cajoled into the ambulance, and away they went. Later, they announced that Giant Ryan would have surgery to attempt to save his career as a stallion. It would be done at the same place where they treated Barbaro.
One can only wonder if the same effort would have been made for a horse that broke down on the back stretch at some place other than Belmont, on some day other than Belmont Stakes day.
In the winners' circle after the breakdown, owner Mike Repole, whose Caixa Electronica had won the race, waxed poetic and thoughtlessly. "This is what horse racing is all about," he said.
The Belmont victory by Union Rags seemed to validate Matz's feelings that he had a bad ride in the Derby. This time, with John Velazquez replacing Julien Leparoux, he got a gem.
Bob Baffert's Paynter, with Mike Smith aboard, took the lead and nearly went wire-to-wire. But Smith, who admitted as much afterward, said he made a mistake by leaving just enough room on the rail for Union Rags to squeeze by in the last 20 yards and win by a neck.
"I got lucky," Velazquez said.
The Baffert-trained Bodemeister finished second to I'll Have Another in both the Derby and Preakness. This time, Baffert left Bodemeister at home and entered Paynter. Same result.
"Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?" Baffert asked afterward, always doing his best to lighten the mood.
Unbeknownst to all but a handful, boxed and locked in a nondescript parking lot half a mile away in the nondescript rental car of its caretaker, Churchill Downs executive Darren Rogers, rested the now 34-year-old silver Triple Crown trophy. It would be going home again, unclaimed.
That was probably the best symbol of the mood of the day.