It's not I'll Have Another, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion headed for retirement after a tendon injury on Friday prevented his Triple Crown attempt on Saturday.
Union Rags' Belmont victory shows he's really the cream of a crummy crop. I'll Have Another's double crown, as exciting as it was in May, will be largely forgotten by Eclipse Award voters come year's end. Instead, Union Rags has a clear shot at upcoming major stakes races to pad his resume.
Union Rags was supposed to be his generation's best before the Derby. After just missing the 2-year-old title, he returned to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes before finishing third in the Florida Derby.
No matter, Union Rags was 5-to-1 in Kentucky before a horrible ride by jockey Julien Leparoux ended any chase as the colt finished seventh. But it was his strong finish at Churchill Downs that made backers wish the colt would come to the Preakness to challenge I'll Have Another on a fair track. Instead, trainer Michael Matz smartly rested Union Rags and hired jockey John Velazquez.
It proved the difference. Union Rags raced cleanly and benefitted from smart riding by Velazquez in the stretch to edge past Paynter in the final three strides. That the time was an impossibly slow 2:30.42 over 1? miles means nothing because the race is simply a jog until the stretch sprint.
Could Union Rags have beaten I'll Have Another in the Belmont?
"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."
Union Rags becomes the leader in a declining industry that so wanted its first Triple Crown champion in 34 years. While Derby-Preakness runner-up Bodemeister and stablemate Paynter will probably stay out west this summer for trainer Bob Baffert, Union Rags now has marquee eastern races like the Haskell and Travers stakes to fatten his reputation.
Dullahan was supposed to become the next big one, but the Belmont favorite showed none of his third-place Derby form while finishing seventh. He may challenge Union Rags again, but there are no other proven stakes runners to rival the latter.
Maybe everyone will meet in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park where Baffert's duo would have a home edge. Then again, injuries will likely remove another top contender or two by then while others rise.
For now, the Belmont wasn't a coronation, but at least it was a redemption. The best horse won.