Turmoil and Triumph - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the June 16, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell A remarkable array of circumstances threatened to derail this year’s Belmont Stakes (gr. I), yet Thoroughbred racing prevailed, rewarding fans with a brilliant performance by Union Rags and John Velazquez.

The chaos started more than two weeks out when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state was temporarily taking over the New York Racing Association by implementing a reorganized board, a majority of which would be political appointees. NYRA is the franchise that operates Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course. The handle from these three tracks account for about 18% of the total U.S. handle for Thoroughbred racing.

Cuomo’s takeover occurred about a month after a discovery that NYRA did not reduce the takeout on some exotic wagers 14 months after a law allowing a temporary takeout increase had expired. The reorganization plan involves reducing the NYRA board from 25 members to 17 and installing seven new members Cuomo would appoint. These new board members have not been announced yet.

Nine days later, trainers got word the New York State Racing and Wagering Board was requiring all Belmont Stakes contenders be relocated to a “stakes” barn by noon June 6, three days before the race. The reason given for the relocation was to ensure integrity prior to the race through greater scrutiny of everyone going in and out of the barn and interacting with the horses. The change was particularly troubling to Union Rags’ trainer Michael Matz, who had scheduled to work his horse at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland June 6 and ship on either June 7 or June 8. Matz was annoyed at the lack of advance notice so he and other trainers could adjust their schedules.

The stakes barn appeared to generate more aggravation and anxiety than it did integrity. For example, both Doug O’Neill, trainer of I’ll Have Another, and Matz cook the oats for their horses to guard against colic. Initially the security force told them cooking oats would not be allowed in the stakes barn. O’Neill threatened to pull the horse from the Belmont and the cooking ban was lifted.

Then came Black Friday when O’Neill announced his shot at the Triple Crown was over; I’ll Have Another had swelling in his left front leg due to tendonitis and the colt would be retired from racing. The bad news became worse when a decision was made to hold the press conference announcing the retirement at the stakes barn. For an hour before the announcement, a crush of more than 100 photographers, videographers, and journalists jockeyed within a small area right next to the barn, angling for a spot from which to see or attempt to hear O’Neill. A television station helicopter hovered overhead. Then everyone was told they needed to be as quiet as possible—don’t shout out any questions to O’Neill—because it would disturb the Belmont horses. The press conference should never have been held there in the first place. We understand O’Neill wanted to walk the horse out to show he was not severely injured but this could have been done at O’Neill’s regular barn, which was a brisk three-minute walk away from the stakes barn and a better set-up with a grass paddock and large parking area alongside.

Now throw in a threatened Belmont day strike by the Local 3 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union, which represents 80 workers at Belmont including starting gate crew.

When it began clouding over the morning of Belmont day, we wondered if it would begin raining frogs.

Fortunately, the weather cleared, but for the occasional sprinkle of rain, and by post time the trials and tribulations of the previous days gave way to excitement. Belmont Park was filled with more than 85,800 cheering fans, who, though denied the chance to witness history, were nonetheless ready for a good race.

The crowd roared as Paynter entered the top of the stretch with Union Rags close on the inside and Atigun battling hard outside. Paynter, with one furlong to go, looked as if he would avenge owner Ahmed Zayat’s second-place finishes with Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Preakness Stakes (both gr. I), but Union Rags and Velazquez found the gap they’d been waiting for on the rail and squeezed through seven strides from the wire to win by a neck.

Sans a Triple Crown at stake, the race delivered so much. Redemption for Union Rags, who had been struggling to reproduce the brilliance shown in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II). Elation for owner/breeder Phyllis Wyeth, who believed so much in the colt that she bought him back as a juvenile for two and half times what she’d sold him for as a yearling. And, appreciation by racing fans everywhere who were happy to forget racing’s turmoil for a day and marvel in a heart-stirring display of athleticism, determination, and courage.


Leave a Comment:

Rachel O

Bravo to Johnny V and Union Rags for pulling The Belmont Stakes out of a puddle of despair into an admirable, brilliant experience. Now Union Rags can go from here being the brilliant, gorgeous colt that he is, to thrill fans all over the country. I look forward to seeing him in the BC Classic.

12 Jun 2012 2:35 PM

MORE CHAOS!!!! Now, as I just read on another website...NYSRWB had listed Giant Ryan as euthanized on June 9 !!  Luckily, Teresa Genaro at Brooklyn Backstretch became aware of the error; contacted the SRWB and correction was made!

All these foul-ups by NYSRWB are a definate negative for NY Racing (and, let's not forget Saratoga Meet is quickly approaching).  What kind of a circus will be held in Saratoga??  Fans just may devote their time and money elsewhere!

12 Jun 2012 3:08 PM

Eric, I hope it's OK to call you that, I don't know what's worse the gutless media types who do nothing or the powers that be that run the game into the ground. Mr. Shulman @ The Bloodhorse comes closest to resembling a journalist and not shill for these criminals. Steve came close over the whole Belmont fiasco to saying something, but he didn't expound on his "disgust" to lose his media credentials. I realize now, why Bill Finley used the word glum when I corresponded with him last year about the integrity of the sport. Now the politicians are here to save the day. Mr. Haskins whom I have liked for 30 years, is past fighting these same battles. He's also nearing retirement , but you and every other Turf writer probably should try to protect your careers by doing something to get some integrity into such a wonderful piece of Americana. I'm not opposed to detention barns, but when Cuomo talks about integrity, that's like Charlie Manson saying domaines a little crazy. I live in Cincinnati so I'm very familiar with Kentucky politics. You guys are headquartered a short drive away and other than an occasional article you guys don't even call out the legislature , when they say casino gamblig may lead to corruption. When Gov. Cuomo made his integrity comment did anyone even think to say," What about all the other races run by NYRA."  You follow like sheep and think everyone else will . How's that working out !  I'm not hopeful that politics , being politically correct , or being a shill for a game that has lost so much luster in the past 50 years.

                      Thanks for the space,

                                                       Stacey Brant

12 Jun 2012 3:59 PM
Criminal Type

I for one can totally understand Mrs Wyeths love affair with this horse. He is absoultely stunning to look at and talented with it. I have to say, I'm pretty tired of people dogging him, hes got no heart, he cant get a distance of ground, he is slow. On Saturday be proved he had heart when he went through that tiny opening on the rail, it wasnt that much wider then the horse himself. He proved he has the stamina to get the distance. Regarding the time, Why would a horse run faster then he had to to win a race? He did not set the pace, in fact had the pace been quicker he would have benefited from it. In my opinion this obsession with speed is hurting the breed, and im not the only one who feels this way.  This horse has a brilliant future as a sire if nothing else because he is bringing much needed stamina to the table. And he remains sound.

The IHA debacle is suspect. Personally I think the horse had tendon issues all along and was trying very hard to bow. They had no choice but to withdraw him.

Congrats to Mrs Wyeth, Mr Matz, Johnny V and Union Rags on a job well done.

12 Jun 2012 4:29 PM
an ole railbird

i would like to send my sympothy to all these miguided people, who beleive that union rags would have out run ill have another @ any point since the lewis stakes. union rags has a 96 index because thats all he has run. i know that just breaks some of you hearts, some times the truth hurts. have a good day.

12 Jun 2012 5:59 PM

Thanks for your assessment of the fiasco leading up to the Belmont and for your description of redemption for Union Rags.

Criminal Type; along with you, Mary and a few others, I have staunchly been one of Union Rags biggest fans, but I disagree that I'll Have Another has been "trying very hard to bow".  Were this the case, the horse would not have been given very strong gallops on a deep track nearly every day.  Had Doug O'Neill had any inkling that this horse had a tendon problem he would have been handled with kid gloves in an effort to at least make it through the Triple Crown series.  I think it's unfair to infer the horse's connections were hiding something.  Yes, Mr. O'Neill has a somewhat checkered past which he has not been able to completely put behind him, but he has been very gracious especially considered the many, many negative comments leveled at him the past several weeks.  I never jumped off of the Union Rags bandwagon and onto I'll Have Another's, but I think credit should be given where credit is due.  The horse was terrific in the Derby and Preakness and his people did right by him when he came up with the injury.

12 Jun 2012 6:24 PM

Criminal Type, God love you.  I said on the other blog, that slow pace might have cooked a lesser horse.  Union Rags would have benefited greatly with a quicker pace.  He ran the last two furlongs in a pretty quick time.  As far as his pedigree, the tail side is where the stamina resides.  It is just so frustrating; everytime I tried to tell people that distance would not be a problem, I was completely ignored, and they would go back to the same old line "no Dixie Union colt can get the distance."  They I guess they didn't realize that UR also had a dam. LOL He was impeccaably bred for stamina above speed.  Very thoughtful breeding.

12 Jun 2012 6:58 PM

IHA had issues last year.  After he won his maiden, he didn't race again for 5 months.  He definitely had problems from the beginning of his career.  The thing is you don't want a triple crown winner to have soundness issues.  My definition of "triple crown winner" is perfection, i.e soundness.  I suspect DO had been dealing with these issues for a long time.

12 Jun 2012 7:06 PM
Criminal Type

Robin, Explain to me why IHA finished second in the Hopeful and then took 5 months off.

It was already stated that there were torn fibers in the tendon.

Your right, he had a brilliant campaign for all of 3 months. Team O'Neill did an admirable job holding him together so long.

12 Jun 2012 7:30 PM

an ole rail bird, I don't pay attention to beyer figures.  Union Rags is a lovely horse with an impeccable pedigree, along with close to perfect conformation.  I'm trying to understand your disdain for this horse.

IHA was bred for speed with little thought for building a strong, sound horse.  You must admit, soundness was an issue with him.  After his maiden win he did not race again for 5 months.  That is a red flag in anyone's mind.  He is a beautiful horse, though, and I wish for him a very long, happy life.

As long as Union Rags continues to race, I'll be right there with him.  The journey continues.

12 Jun 2012 9:29 PM

i agree with commenter #1.  Let's have horse racing quit worrying about misperception and start defending itself. Starting with lasix use, which is a horse health issue instead of as our jock club would have us believe--a misperception issue.

12 Jun 2012 9:42 PM

Can't wait to see this beauty go on to do great things!!

12 Jun 2012 11:37 PM


IHA was injured last year after a 6th place finish in the Best Pal stakes. We do not know what happened, because we have not been told...

I supspect he had an issue with his tendon, they had treated it and it was dormant for a while which is a great job by Doug and company. However, Doug did not breeze the horse between the Preakness and Belmont and no horse has won the T/c without a published work before the Belmont Stakes. They went out of there way to get Billy Turner in there, the kind of the slow breeze, to say IHA was different than Seattle Slew and did not need a breeze. Old timers like Ray Paulick kept saying how odd it was not to breeze the horse (regardless of how hard he was galloping). And, BTW, horses like Slew and Big Red and Affirmed all had 2 breezes between the Preakness and BS and ran 2 minute licks almost daily...

Sure they were galloping IHA strongly. They had to. There is a difference between even a 2 minute lick and a breeze. Breezes are more strenuous than even the most aggressive of gallops, that is why they are a breeze.

Its there if you want to see it, and is not there if you do not. I think the tendon probably flared back up and did not come from out of the blue because tendon issues develop OVER TIME...

Either way, they did right by the horse and it would not be the first time we did not get the full story on the extent or history of a career ending injury.

13 Jun 2012 1:03 AM

Hi Mary.  Are you from Vermont?  Because, if you are, I remember you talking about a certain Big Mare's dam including multiple references to ankles.  Now you're insisting that I'll Have Another has always had problems. If you do some research, you will find that he had some time off for "shins" after running at Saratoga.  This was his 3rd? race, not right after his maiden win.  If you look at how he gallops, he has to be a durable horse to do those 2 minute licks.  And for your definition of a "Triple Crown Winner" please take a look at Assault and some of the others.  Are you saying Assault's win shouldn't count because he overcame the handicap of a clubbed hoof? Please give I'll Have Another some respect.  He's a hard trying horse with heart.  

You are a fan of Rachel, right?  She had a chip (ankle?) as a two year old.  IEAH had her vetted and turned her down.  She had time off and returned to impress us with her brillance in the KO.  Most horses have issues now and then.  Look at the Australian star Black Caviar.  Sorry, but I've read a couple posts from you recently and had to say something.  Take care.

I know you love the horses.  

13 Jun 2012 2:31 AM

Aluminaut, no you have the wrong Mary.  I'm from Louisiana.  I do apologize for not having my facts straight.  As a 2 year old the only race he won was his maiden, and after the Hopeful last September, he did not race again for 5 months.  I have a great deal of respect for IHA, but lets face it, his career lasted all of 4 months.  That is not long enough for me to proclaim any horse's  greatness.

As for Assault, that club foot was the result of stepping on some sort of sharp stake.  No matter, Assault raced 42 times and lived to be 28 years old.

Thank you for the information.  Have a nice day.  

13 Jun 2012 10:14 AM

Aluminaut; excellent points regarding soundness in horses. I'm wondering if Mary might really have meant "durable" rather than "sound".  Very few horses that run very fast remain completely sound throughout their careers.  I too have read that IHA' problem as a 2 yr old was "shins", a common problem not related to the tendon.  I am trying to give Mary the benefit of the doubt here, because, I too can certainly read her love of horses, or at least of one horse, in her comments.  However, she doesn't only denigrate IAH for lack of soundness, but also is inaccurately critical of his pedigree stating his soundness issues are the result of a pedigree built for speed, not stamina.  I happen to agree with her that stamina influence often comes through the dam; my own "recipe for success" is speed over stamina in as many crosses as possible in a horse's pedigree.  But Mary, have you actually studied IHA female family?  It is replete with stamina influence starting with dam sire Arch (Kris S/Roberto out of Princequillo mare x Aurora/Danzig out of Alydar mare) and continuing through the  dam Force Five Gal (PleaseantTap/Pleasant Colony out of Stage Door Johnny mare) and "tail female" to Nijinsky and Seabird. You very seldom see a dam line so beautifully built for stamina.

13 Jun 2012 11:34 AM

Ace, Steve Haskins did explain his "disgust" remark later on in the same blog within the comments left by readers. Look back at the blog and read all the comments. Steve's is there.

Eric, thank you for this wonderful perspective on the Belmont. I, too, am not sure why there are so many Union Rags detractors. He is a well-bred talented colt and clearly demonstrated his determination and will to win last Saturday. I've seen some blog comments comparing him negatively to Secretariat, and I'm not sure how that's relevant. Secretariat is incomparable, and to expect every Belmont winner, or even Triple Crown winner, tomeasure up to those standards is completely unrealistic.

I also have been a Union Rags fan since his 2-yr-old season, and the colt deserves some respect for his accomplishments.

It is beyond disappointing that I'll Have Another did not run in the Belmont. He is a fighter who likes to win with a beautiful running style and may well have been our next Triple Crown winner. But the fact that he did not run should not detract from Union Rags' win, or the style in which he won.

13 Jun 2012 12:39 PM

I suspect that if I'll Have Another had been sound, he would have defeated Union Rags.  This is not a slam on Union Rags.  He is an absolutely stunning horse, with exceptional conformation.  I suspect he is a bit of a grinder, which is not an insult from me because I LIKE grinders, he does seem to have stamina and if he is as sound as he appears, he will bring in some good blood.

  I'll Have Another is a horse with talent and more than anything, heart.  It is just too bad he could not stay sound.  It may have to do with conformation but it may just be bad luck.  Tendon injuries can be caused by a bad step, a mishap in the stall, while out playing, anything.  Doug O'Neill and his crew (especially Lava Man) did a great job with the horse.

  Union Rags needs to face Bodemeister in order to prove just how good he is. That would answer a lot of questions.

  As to all the nonsense in New York, it is just a shame that so few people are looking out for the best interest of the horses.  Matz certainly does and O'Neill, for all the trouble he's had certainly did for I'll Have Another and especially, for my favorite Lava Man.  I will always like him for that.

13 Jun 2012 1:51 PM
Lise from Maine


Having the "state" involved always causes turmoil.

The NYRA needs to be operated by the private sector with honest people where the horses, trainers, jockeys, and the fans needs are primary.

13 Jun 2012 8:35 PM

robinm, I will look at IHA's pedigree again tomorrow. As I recall, Kris S. is located on the top side of his pedigree. IHA is such a lovely colt, and I wish him the best and hope that he lives a long healthy life.  I love Union Rags, but I also love I'll Have Another.

14 Jun 2012 12:06 AM

Mary; IHA's dam, Archie's Gal Edith, is by Arch.  Arch by Kris S out of Aurora (Danzig x Althea (Alydar) is proving to be an excellent influence for stamina in the breed, as indeed, his pedigree says he should.  "Edith"'s dam is also bred strongly for stamina. IHA's sire, Flower Alley has more speed influence in his pedigree, but we are talking 8.5 to 9 furlong horses here, no pure sprinters and Flower Alley himself was successful up to 10 furlongs.  Based on pedigree alone, I see no reason to state that IHA's "unsoundness" is a direct result of a speed-favoring pedigree.  

14 Jun 2012 3:51 PM
an ole railbird

i have been active in horse racing for 52 years. and have observed from several levels. starting on the handle of a pitchfork,muckin stalls, to the end of a lead shank, as a hot walker, then gallop boy. finally made it to jockey. the draft got me &made a soldier out of me. i out grew the jockey partof it & became trainer. have been active in racing ever since. now as an owner. i said all that to say, in my whole career, i have naver seen a outstanding horse that raced for any length of time, that at some point in time didnt have some sort of soundness issues. it comes with the territory. how many professional athletes that competed for any lenght of time, never came out of competion sore? if a horse is a race horse he is going to give it all @ some point in time, & come back sore. that is part of the game. trainers train for the races written by the tracks. the tracks write the races that the public will gamble on the most. there are bokoos of horses out there that can run longer than they are running. why pound on a horse to train him for a 1 1/4- 1 3/8 or a 1 1/2. when you can keep him @ a mile &there are several races for him every week. if i had a 3 yr old that could win @ a 1 1/2 but couldnt win any shorter. do you know how many times that horse would cross the usa, to stay busy racing his 3 & 4 yr old years?  it "aint' the breed, it "aint the breeders, it "aint" the trainers. its show business & they are all playing to the public demand. and it "aint" a cruel sport. a good race horse runs because he loves it, as much as us people love to watch it. a lot of fans need to broaden their horizons a little& study up on reality. the fantasy is nice but ther is more to it than fantasy. "an ole railbird" rails again.

15 Jun 2012 5:14 AM
Mary in VT


You have your Marys mixed up.

Yes, I'm from Vermont and usually post as Mary in Vermont to distinguish myself from other Marys. Yes, I heard someone on tv who took care of Zenyatta's dam say she had ankles like grapefruit. But no, I have not made any comments on IHA soundness here, there, or anywhere else for that matter. I was - make that I am - very impressed with IHA. I do think he was special. And yes, cuckoo for cocoa puffs over Rachel. Yes, knew about the chip, and that IEAH rejected her. Last but not least, you haven't read much of anything from me lately. Have two litters of bouncing baby Borzoi puppies taking nearly every second of my time.

Take care.

15 Jun 2012 10:01 PM

Hello to the Marys.  Mary in Vermont, we have something in common.  Except the last litter of Borzois that kept me busy was way back in the '70s.  Da mom was by *Sirhan Porshai.  Not sure if I spelled that right.  I went to the Belmont last week.  Very disappointed to read that I'll Have Another was out first thing on Friday morning.  Went anyway since I'd already made arrangements.  Very difficult getting out of Belmont and back to the hotel after. Just read that J. V. is out with a broken collarbone that requires surgery.  One week from his and Rags win in the Belmont.  

17 Jun 2012 2:23 AM
Stellar Jayne

Breeze10 - Was Giant Ryan euthanized, or is he still alive???

17 Jun 2012 7:34 PM

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