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.

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