Union Rags

Union Rags trains in preparation for the Kentucky Derby last month. (Rob Carr, Getty Images / May 3, 2012)

Before trainer Michael Matz can find out if Union Rags will get the clean trip he failed to get at the Kentucky Derby, the promising colt must hope for some luck with traffic.

Union Rags, like all of the horses set to run in the 144th Belmont on Saturday, is due to check in at a newly established stakes barn at the Elmont, N.Y., race track by noon Wednesday.

Matz, one of several trainers who questioned the announcement last week of stiff new rules for Belmont hopefuls, is intent on galloping his colt at his Elkton, Md., base before shipping.

"We're just trying to do the best we can to get there before noon," Matz said. "The track [at Fair Hill] opens at 5:30 a.m., he'll gallop, and by the time he's cooled out we won't leave until 7:30 or 8 o'clock, and then we'll hit rush-hour traffic."

That's usually a three-and-a-half-hour trip, by van, by the way.

With the Triple Crown on the line for the 12th time since it was last won, in 1978 by Affirmed, Union Rags has emerged, along with Dullahan, as a top competitor to preventI'll Have Another's bid.

That's no surprise. Union Rags was the second favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but ended up finishing a hard-charging 7th after jockey Julien Leparoux became entangled in traffic.

The same happened in Union Rag's final prep race, the Florida Derby, which the colt entered as a heavy favorite with a chance to secure the same role in Kentucky. But Leparoux never found a clear lane, and has been ousted in favor of John Velazquez.

Matz was hardly effusive in explaining the decision to go with Velazquez, but was typically direct.

"He's one of the top riders in New York," he said. "We hope he'll give him a chance."

Earlier in his career, the 40-year-old Velazquez developed a reputation for being aggressive early in races.

"That was partially due to the trainers he raced with a lot, that they liked to be close to the lead showing speed," said Graham Motion, who tabbed Velazquez to ride Animal Kingdom the day before the colt won last year's Kentucky Derby. "But I think what I've learned through the years is that Johnny can ride any kind of horse.

"He'll be a good fit."

Animal Kingdom chased down the lead pack late at both the Derby and Preakness a year ago (finishing second in Baltimore), but almost fell early in the Belmont and never recovered. Velazquez, who rode Motion's Went the Day Well in the first two legs of the Triple Crown this year, had been asked to ride Union Rags earlier but deferred because he was booked to ride Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup (the horse didn't run due to injury).

On Tuesday at a luncheon in New York City, Velazquez said adjusting to a horse at the last minute would not be a problem and also refused to pin blame on Leparoux.

"He had no luck when he rode him," he said. "Hopefully luck changes in [Union Rags'] way and hopefully he can show the talent he's got. Julien is an excellent rider."

Union Rags' backstory became well known in the run up to the Derby. Owner Phyllis Wyeth — once an aide toJohn F. Kennedyin the White House before being crippled in a car accident and married to painter Jamie Wyeth (son of Andrew) — sold Union Rags but paid a premium to get him back after he appeared in her dreams.

Unlike I'll Have Another, Union Rags has already raced around the unique oval and over the deep sand at Belmont, winning last year's Grade I Champagne stakes by more than five lengths. Now he's got to do it at a mile-and-a-half.

"Nobody ever really knows how a horse is going to handle a race that long," Matz said Tuesday. "But we wouldn't be going if we didn't feel he could handle it."

Velazquez went to Fair Hill Sunday for Union Rags' final workout. He covered five furlongs in a quick 59 seconds his first time on the horse. He said the colt was, "very nice," ran "very well" and was "very impressive." Now he'll attempt to show that on race day, and continue a Triple Crown drought that has spanned 33 years.

Notes: The draw for Saturday's Belmont will be held Wednesday at 11a.m. and live streamed at belmontstakes.com. Eleven horses are expected to enter. … Legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas was kicked in the head by one of his horses Tuesday and required stitches. He hopes to return to the track Wednesday, to train Belmont entrant Optimizer. … All people entering the special Belmont Stakes barn will be required to sign in, and all interactions with the horses will be closely monitored. The high level of scrutiny comes after I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill was hit with a yet-to-start 45-day suspension for running a horse with what is considered to be an unnatural level of total carbon dioxide in its blood. Also, New York's governing body for horse racing was essentially seized by the governor last month due to mismanagement and has been turned over to a board he appointed.

ckorman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman