In his hauntingly melodic song, “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen wrote, “Baby I’ve been here before. I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.”
Many of the 85,811 on hand at Belmont Park June 9 had been here before, familiar with every hallowed nook and cranny of this historic structure. They walked its floors nervously waiting and hoping and believing, “With nothing on (their) tongue but Hallelujah.”
Just once they wanted to shout it to the heavens, but each time they fell silent. No Hallelujah. No Triple Crown winner. No history; just another Belmont Stakes and another fallen hero. But every time a horse wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes they keep returning, longing to see their star “moving like a tremendous machine,” as the fans did in 1973.
This year, they experienced a new disappointment. Their hero was never even given the chance to fall, as I’ll Have Another, the horse who seemed indestructible, was withdrawn from the race the day before due to tendonitis in his left front leg, as a stunned racing world hung its head in sorrow and disbelief. They truly believed that after 34 years, this was the horse who would be allowed entrance into racing’s pantheon.
But from the ashes of yet another broken dream emerged a new hero, who many had believed back in February would be the one on the threshold of Triple Crown immortality. His name was Union Rags, the horse who seemingly had it all. He was big and beautiful and extremely talented. He was trained by Michael Matz, who had brought Barbaro into national prominence in 2006. He was owned and bred by Phyllis Wyeth of Chadds Ford Stable, whose remarkable story seemed destined to have its own chapter in the history books. He had shown his class, his speed, and his stamina by overcoming trouble to romp in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and just failed by a head in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) after racing very wide every step of the way.
When he won the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) in his 3-year-old debut, the words “Triple Crown” were once again on everyone’s lips. If the drought was ever to end, this looked like the horse to do it. But the fairy tale came to an abrupt halt when the colt failed to overcome a troubled trip in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and a disastrous trip in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
After the Derby, the son of Dixie Union – Tempo, by Gone West returned to his home at the bucolic Fair Hill training center in Fair Hill, Md., while I’ll Have Another captured the hearts of racing fans all over the country with his gutsy victories over a stubborn and game foe in Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I). A new hero had been born, with the stamina, courage, and toughness to conquer the elusive Triple Crown. The decades of waiting seemed to finally be at an end.
But with fame often comes fire, and the national media, as well as the racing media, went into attack mode by digging up and sensationalizing every transgression they could find on the colt’s trainer Doug O’Neill, who had been linked to a number of infractions over the years, including a recent suspension for a carbon dioxide (TC02) overage, in which he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by the California Horse Racing Board. But the media, most notably the New York Times, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and CNN, were relentless in their attempt to bring down O’Neill and besmirch the reputation of owner J. Paul Reddam.
After O’Neill’s suspension was announced, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board ordered all Belmont Stakes horses to be stabled in a designated “stakes” barn, beginning three days before the race. The turmoil surrounding the Belmont continued to mount with a threatened strike by New York Racing Association maintenance workers, I’ll Have Another being nearly run into by a loose horse one morning, the banning of I’ll Have Another’s nasal strips by NYRA, and licensing problems for the colt’s exercise rider. There was also the state takeover of the NYRA board. These unfortunate events overshadowed the feel-good, rags to riches story of jockey Mario Gutierrez, the hospital and youth club visits by O’Neil, the lighting of the Empire State building in Reddam’s colors, the overall accommodating and friendly nature of O’Neill and his team, and most of all the story that was unfolding regarding I’ll Have Another, who was turning in eye-popping “gallops” every morning and looked to be on the verge of superstardom.
While the firestorm surrounding the Belmont and O’Neill was dominating the headlines up in New York, a totally different scene was being played out at Fair Hill, with its forests and gentle rolling hills and winding horse paths, where horses frolic in sand pens and graze contentedly in paddocks. This is the home of Union Rags.
One morning, shortly after the debacle of the Kentucky Derby, Matz was applying ointment on the cuts the colt suffered on his pastern at Churchill Downs. A steady morning rain prevented Union Rags was going out in the paddock and he made his displeasure known. Matz had decided to skip the Preakness and point for the Belmont to give the colt time to recover from his ordeal.
“Everything couldn’t have gone any better except for the last two minutes,” Matz said. “And that was the only part we couldn’t control. I didn’t know what to say to Phyllis, she was so disappointed. You can’t criticize the horse if he isn‘t given a chance to run.”
It was pretty obvious at that point that Matz was seriously contemplating switching jockeys. Earlier in the year, the colt’s regular rider, Javier Castellano, elected to jump ship to ride the Todd Pletcher-trained Algorithms on the Derby trail, which prompted Matz to switch to Julien Leparoux. But that marriage wasn’t working out, and after the the defeats at Gulfstream and Churchill, it was time to change. Matz would eventually choose John Velazquez, who had ridden another “Rags” (Rags to Riches) to victory in the 2007 Belmont Stakes.
Union Rags, as most horses do, was flourishing at Fair Hill. Two weeks before the Belmont, he went out for a steady gallop following an early morning thunderstorm. His regular rider, Matz’ assistant Peter Brette, was taking his first day off in four months, and Paul Madden, an amateur rider who had competed at the Fair Hill races the day before, was given a leg up on the colt.
He walked in Union Rags’ stall, gave him a smack on the neck and said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to get on his back.”
After his gallop, Union Rags was put in the sand pen for a while before being turned out in a spacious paddock, as he is every morning. Matz was hoping to salvage one of the Triple Crown events and felt his best chance to do so was skip the Preakness and train him for the Belmont.
“I don’t know if a mile and a half is the place to accomplish that, but I feel he deserves to go in one of the last two Triple Crown races, and the Belmont looks to be his best chance,” Matz said.
Wyeth, meanwhile, had gone up to Maine with her husband, Jamie, a noted artist, to unwind from the bitter disappointment of the Derby.
“She was good right after the race, but as the week went on it started to sink in that it’s finished; that’s it, the Derby is gone,” Matz said.
Wyeth’s bloodstock agent, adviser, and dear friend Russell Jones, said, “She took it tough and rightly so. With all the attention she was getting, it put her on a level she wasn’t used to being on. She really doesn’t like all the attention. This colt has always been so special to her and to have the rug pulled out from under her was very tough. She went up to Maine and when I talked to her recently she sounded better, but she was whipped.”
The Derby wasn’t the way the fairy tale was supposed to end. The story of Wyeth and Union Rags had played out like some great saga and seemed destined to end the way all fairy tales do.
The story began on Wyeth’s historic Point Lookout Farm overlooking Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, scene of the Battle of Brandywine, fought in the Revolutionary War. Wyeth’s parents, James and Alice du Pont Mills, raced under the name Hickory Tree Stable, based in Middleburg, Va., and bred and owned such top-class horses as Devil’s Bag and Gone West. Phyllis, who would hotwalk her father’s polo ponies as a young girl, said she could ride before she could walk. She worked on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960. In 1962, she was injured in a car accident, suffering a broken neck, which left her unable to walk. For 50 years, she has moved about in a motorized scooter.
“Phyllis is the most remarkable person I have ever met,” said her close friend Rick Porter, owner of Fox Hill Farm. “Her life was turned upside down and she’s been prevented from doing the things she was always able to do, mainly ride and jump horses. As a person, she is in a class alone from anyone I have ever met. Every day is full of roadblocks that most of us can’t even fathom. Yet, she always gets to where she wants to go, no matter how hard it is for her. She needs to have action and is always planning something. She never looks at a situation and feels defeated. She meets the challenge every time.”
Wyeth always dreamed of having that special racehorse, and she thought she had found one in a young Union Rags, who was the last foal from her favorite broodmare, Tempo, who had difficulty breeding and maintaining a pregnancy. They even thought they’d lose her on a couple of occasions. Her foal by Dixie Union was so laid back and easy-going you could sit on him while he was lying down in his stall. But he showed great promise right from the start.
That’s why Wyeth was devastated when her accountant told her she had to sell the colt in order to show a profit and run the farm as a business. This was the horse she had dreamed about her whole life and she was forced to give him up. She admitted she never had such affection for a horse.
She wound up selling the colt at the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale at Saratoga for $145,000 to IEAH Stable, who had won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Big Brown. But she immediately began having seller’s remorse and the thought of losing the horse brought her to tears. This was Point Lookout’s and her family’s legacy, and he was gone.
She kept having a recurring dream that she was meant to have this horse and told Jones to see if he could buy him back. Then one day about six months later, Jones called her and said the colt was in the Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-old sale at Palm Meadows. IEAH was having some financial issues of their own and had been pinhooking horses in order to create as much cash flow as possible.
They had sent Union Rags to Eddie Woods in Ocala to prepare for the sale. “He was such a big, beautiful mover,” Woods recalled. “He had the potential to be anything. And he was just the perfect gentleman to train.”
When Wyeth heard from Jones about her colt being in the sale, she was simple and to the point: “Get him.”
Jones told her she was going to have to pay a lot more than she sold him for, but she was determined to buy him back. Jones thought he could go as high as $400,000, and Wyeth told him to go to $390,000, and if she had to she would borrow the money from the bank. When the colt stepped into the ring, the auctioneer said, “Oh, boy, isn’t he beautiful?”
The bidding rose steadily in $10,000 increments, reaching Jones’ limit. He bid $390,000 and that was it. Down came the hammer. The auctioneer said, “Thank you and good luck,” and Wyeth had her horse back.
“It was as if it was supposed to happen,” Jones said. “She picked that number out of thin air and that’s what he sold for. You have to believe he was meant to come home.”
Wyeth turned Union Rags over to Matz and was a bit apprehensive when he entered him in a five-furlong maiden race at Delaware Park. Matz, who has never had a reputation for sending out precocious 2-year-olds, realized the colt needed experience and had been training well, so he decided to run him short. When the colt won, he and Wyeth knew they had something special on their hands. Romps in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) and Champagne followed, and then came the tough defeat to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
To Matz’ surprise and indignation, Hansen not only won the Eclipse Award, but won in a landslide. “I didn’t mind losing the Eclipse Award, but I didn’t think Hansen should have gotten four times as many votes,” he said. “It was one of those instances where you look at something and say, ‘How can I be so wrong?’”
If Union Rags was going to have any shot at an Eclipse Award at 3, he would have to win the Belmont Stakes.
The colt remained cloistered at Fair Hill while I’ll Have Another and O’Neill dominated the headlines. I’ll Have Another’s arch rival, Bodemeister, owned by Zayat Stables and trained by Bob Baffert, was skipping the Belmont, replaced by another lightly raced colt from the same connections named Paynter, who at one point was regarded as the more talented of the two.
On the Sunday before the Belmont, Velazquez went down to Fair Hill to work Union Rags, who breezed five furlongs in a brisk :59 flat.
“Michael just said he wanted me to get a feel for the horse,” Velazquez said. “As soon as I got on him, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘Man, he’s pretty strong,’ Michael said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be good for you in the race. He’s been a unlucky horse, so just try to get a clean trip and we’ll go from there.’ He did everything so easily in the work; I was very impressed with him. Hopefully, I can give him the trip he deserves. He’s just a big, strong, gorgeous horse, and I think people are going to be surprised to see him return to the Union Rags they knew.”
The common thread that makes racing such a powerful and passionate sport is the cross-section of human interest stories it provides, whether it be about Phyllis Wyeth or the rags to riches story of Mario Gutierrez or a simple bonding between father and daughter.
One of the partners in Donegal Racing, owner of Dullahan, is cardiologist Rick DeNardo, who became involved through his daughter, Michaela, following his divorce. He was intrigued with the bond that was created between father and daughter in the movie “Dreamer,” which they watched together countless times. That led to a trip to the Breeders’ Cup and eventually ownership in horses. Their experience at the Kentucky Derby was one he will never forget.
“To do the walkover in the Derby with my daughter on my arm, it’s absolutely one of those indelible memories that will be with me forever and always bring a warm smile and a moist eye; just an unbelievable experience,” DeNardo said. “I’m mentally humbled and unduly rewarded to be able to participate at such a level. As a parent, there are events that are woven into the tapestry; memories that we create with and for our children, and this will forever stay with me. And I hope if I’m no longer here, Michaela will reflect upon them and cherish them as much as I have. It’s been absolutely beyond my expectations.”
Although 12 were entered in the Belmont, only five were given a legitimate chance to win – I’ll Have Another, Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Dullahan, Union Rags, Paynter, and Street Life, third in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II). Atigun, trained by Kenny McPeek, who upset the 2002 Belmont with Sarava, looked to have the stamina to be considered a live longshot.
Then the day before the Belmont, all hell broke loose as O’Neill and Reddam announced at a press conference that I’ll Have Another would not run because of a tendon injury and was being retired. The news came as a crushing blow to a sport in dire need of a hero and to all those yearning to see a Triple Crown winner, many for the first time in their lives.
Although racing had just had the wind knocked out of it, there was still a Belmont to be run.
Ahmed Zayat was looking to snap a frustrating run of second-place finishes and some bad luck in the classics. He had finished second in three of the last four Kentucky Derbys and lost the overwhelming favorite, Eskendereya, to injury the other year. Bodemeister was nailed on the wire in the Preakness, Nehro was beaten a nose in the Pimlico Special the same day, and Justin Phillip was nipped right on the wire in the True North Stakes on Belmont day.
The morning of the Belmont, Zayat and his family and several friends gathered in their mobile home, which they rent and park on the backstretch overnight in order to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Following their morning prayers, they indulged in a feast of bagels and lox and whitefish and other culinary delights, including a cake inscribed with the words, “Power Up Paynter,” before preparing to head to the races. When TVG showed the stretch runs of the Derby and Preakness, Zayat let out one word: “Torture!”
Little did he know he would be in for more torture.
Prior to the Belmont, I’ll Have Another was paraded around the walking ring to a warm round of applause and then brought to the winner’s circle, where the fans got one final look at the horse they thought was destined to be the sport’s savior.
“I think of the journey he’s taken me on,” O’Neill said. “He’s such a once in a lifetime heroic horse. This has been so special for the whole team.”
Dullahan was made the slight 5-2 favorite over Union Rags, also at 5-2. Paynter, as expected, went to the lead under Mike Smith, and after a lively opening quarter in :23.72, he slowed the pace down, getting the half in :49.23 and three-quarters in 1:14.72, while maintaining about a length advantage over longshots Optimizer and Unstoppable U.
Velazquez had Union Rags down on the inside in fifth after breaking from post 3 and was just biding his time, waiting for room. The longer the race went the more uneasy Matz and Wyeth became, seeing the same scenario as the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby unfolding.
“I was having flashbacks of the last two races and was starting to get nervous,” Matz said.
Paynter continued to lead, while under a comfortable hold by Smith and looked to be in control of the race, slowing down the fractions with a 1:38.85 mile. Passing the three-eighths pole, Atigun made a bold move on the far outside and looked to be a legitimate threat. Union Rags, meanwhile, had made steady progress without having to break stride at all, but found himself directly behind Paynter, with the outside sealed off by Atigun.
Smith could sense the danger from Atigun and went to a left-handed whip after turning for home. Paynter eased slightly off the rail, just enough to allow Union Rags a path, as narrow as it was. Velazquez jumped at the opportunity and came through the tight spot. Paynter had repulsed the challenge from Atigun and now had to turn his attention to Union Rags, who was creeping up on his inside.
“I saw the hole and I waited for it to open up,” Velazquez said. “I got lucky. The horse did it all.”
Paynter dug in again, but Union Rags kept coming and was able to just get up by a neck in yet another agonizing defeat for Zayat and Baffert. Paynter ran his heart out, especially considering the fact that he lost a shoe in the race. It was another 1 ¾ lengths back to Atigun in third. Dullahan never fired, finishing seventh. The final time for the mile and a half was 2:30.42, leading many to believe that the Belmont would have been ripe for the taking for I’ll Have Another.
But that will remain pure speculation. Union Rags had come through for Wyeth and Matz and closed out the 2012 Triple Crown by writing at least one chapter of the trilogy and turning the fairy tale into reality.
As Wyeth, seemingly overwhelmed by the experience, was wheeled into the winner’s circle, one of those cheering her on was her niece Sophie Derrickson, who lives in Bali with her husband Lance.
“I’m so happy for Phyllis,” she said. “She really needed this. After the Derby, she was great until she got home. Once she got home she crashed for several days and then left for Maine. Phyllis is like my mother. We’ve done everything together. We traveled together just the two of us when I was young and she was able to. Whenever she had something exciting to do she asked me to be there with her. It’s so wonderful to have such a great aunt who treats me like a daughter. I’m the only grandchild in the family. I only wish I’ll Have Never would have been here for us to beat him.”
Paynter’s connections took the defeat graciously, despite their bitter disappointment.
“Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?” Baffert asked. “I need a Triple Crown for seconds. I really thought he was going to win today. He was doing so well. I just feel bad for Mr. Zayat. The poor guy, he’s been tortured on this Triple Crown. Turning for home, I knew we had the horse to do it and that horse snuck up on him there. He’s still a young horse, still learning how to run. It’s over. When you get beat, you get beat.”
Said Zayat, “Heartbreaking defeat; just a heartbreaking defeat. He ran his guts out. What do they call that race, the ‘Test of the Champion?’ To go a mile and a half the way he did in only his fifth race I am very lucky to have him. I’m just very disappointed we opened the rail for (Union Rags).”
So, the tumultuous 2012 Triple Crown passes into history, with I’ll Have Another bidding farewell after coming one day short of possible immortality, and Union Rags, Bodemeister, and Paynter emerging as the stars of the summer and fall.
After the race, Wyeth passed on the post-race interview and was taken to the director’s room before heading back to the barn to see her hero.
“I want to see Peter and the boys,” she said, holding a half-smoked cigar. “I went upstairs, but it got so hot I was ready to pass out. I had to go out and have a little puff of my cigar.”
Union Rags had just been out grazing for a short while and Brette asked her if she wanted to see him out.
“No, if you tell me he’s alright, that’s fine with me,” she said. “You call me in two days and tell me if there’s any heat. I’m sorry I didn’t mention you (on TV); everything was out so of control.”
But Brette had the colt brought out anyway, and Wyeth wheeled herself over to him and gave him a pat on the forehead.
And so, Wyeth and Union Rags got to complete their fairy tale and live happily ever after. The horse was put on a van that night and returned home to Fair Hill.
“Tomorrow he’ll be turned out in a nice paddock,” said Matz, “and can stay out as long as he wants to.”
The journey begins. I'll Have Another arrives at Churchill.
I'll Have Another morning after the Preakness
I'll Have Another horsing around with Dennis O'Neill
Team O'Neill and Paul Reddam
Union Rags at Fair Hill
Union Rags at Fair Hill
Union Rags at Fair Hill
Breakfast at Belmont great for kids
Team O'Neill farewell photo with the Big Hoss
Proud Lava Man thinks the cheers are for him
I'll Have Another and crew one last walk