Union Rags ate contentedly in his stall Sunday morning, 15 hours after finally fulfilling his promise — and some would say destiny — with a thrilling win at the Belmont Stakes.
The once-beleaguered colt had arrived at 1 in the morning. After getting some rest, he was turned out in his paddock and spent the morning rolling around and watching the workers and other horses at Michael Matz's Victory Farm stables on the northern grounds of the Fair Hill Training Center.
"He couldn't be doing any better," Matz said.
Union Rags will mostly rest this week, Matz said. Training will resume based on how he responds in coming days. Though no specific destination has been selected, he'll likely be pointed toward the premier summer races for 3-year-olds: the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth or Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga in late July, then possibly the Travers at Saratoga a month later.
"We had those two unforunate races," at the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, Matz said. "I feel like some of the writers made him out to be something he is not. Now he's shown what he can do and we are looking forward to seeing where he fits with his class. We think he's one of the better ones, but it's certainly a shame thatI'll Have Another got injured."
Matz, speaking frankly as usual, said that trainer Doug O'Neill's training schedule for I'll Have Another was arduous. The colt suffered a tendon injury and was scratched the day before attempting to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.
"He gallops awfully strong," Matz said. "If that's [O'Neill's] style, then that's his style. Certainly Doug O'Neill knows his horse better than anyone. But that was a lot coming off two big races, and the way that horse closes out."
I'll Have Another's gallops generally ended in a near-full sprint; the colt could hardly be held when he got to running.
Union Rags did not challenge I'll Have Another, who was busy chasing down Bodemeister, in the Kentucky Derby. He was stuck in the pack with nowhere to go after a bad break and needed a surge just to finish seventh.
Matz decided to skip the Preakness and make a jockey change — Julien Leparoux had not gotten Union Rags free in the Florida Derby, either — but otherwise did very little differently. He stood the colt in the gate at Fair Hill once; everything else about his preparation was the same as it was going into the Kentucky Derby.
"As I said after Kentucky, I didn't know who to blame: the horse, the jockey or the trainer," he said. "We changed one of those variables but that still doesn't mean I'm going to blame the rider. You have variables you can change, but you don't always know what caused the result. We just managed to get it done."
John Velazquez, who'd originally been asked to ride the horse but had to say no because of a commitment to another Fair Hill horse (Graham Motion's Animal Kingdom), was "brilliant," Matz said.
"He broke well and took him right to a spot where he could feel comfortable," he said. "That's why he was able, at the end, to go through that tight space. That showed a lot of heart. Only a horse with a lot of heart would have done that."
Union Rags squeezed through an opening on the rail to catch and pass Paynter and win by a neck.
Matz did not have much time to discuss the win with Union Rags owner Phyllis Wyeth, who was emotional afterward.
"You could tell it meant a lot," Matz said. "She went to be with friends and family and everybody wanted a piece of her."
In the winner's circle, after she had driven away on her electric wheelchair, Matz said: "I hope it's been one of the times of her life." Wyeth bred Union Rags, sold him and bought him back for more than twice the price because she thought he could compete for a Triple Crown. He represented the near end of Wyeth's family breeding operation — her parents, James Mills and Alice du Pont Mills, owned Hickory Tree Farms — but will, providing he can stay healthy, no doubt be a highly sought stallion.
Hickory Tree Farms' top horse, Devil's Bag, drew comparisons to Secretariat during an undefeated 2-year-old season and was the early favorite to win the 1983 Kentucky Derby. A knee injury knocked the Maryland-bred horse out of the running, though, and Wyeth has been searching for her own possible super horse since then.
She'll settle now for having a candidate to be named the top 3-year-old of 2012. I'll Have Another's retirement opens the contest, with Bodemeister, close runner-up in the Derby and Preakness, offering the most compelling competition.
"I think it puts Union Rags in the picture for an Eclipse Award," Dale Romans, trainer of Belmont favorite Dullahan, said after the race. "There's a lot of year left, and with I'll Have Another out, it's definitely in his own hands."