Velazquez Rides Union Rags to Victory at Belmont Stakes

The first time’s the charm for John Velazquez

Riding Union Rags for the first time, the 40-year-old Puerto Rican jockey led the 3-year-old colt to victory at Saturday’s 144th Belmont Stakes.

John Velzquez & Union Rags

Union Rags determinedly budged through a narrow opening on front-running Paynter‘s left flank with eight strides to go and snatched a dramatic neck victory in the Triple Crown finale in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 85,811 showed up at Belmont Park.

“I waited for a hole to open up, and I got lucky,” said Velazquez. “The horse did it all. … If it happens, it’s brilliant. If it doesn’t happen, you’re a bum, basically.”

John Velzquez & Union Rags

Velazquez set up the move by putting Union Rags in Paynter jockey Mike Smith‘s blind spot. But he still could only hope that Paynter would move ever so slightly off the rail. With Atigun making a run on the outside, Smith switched to his left-hand stick — and Velazquez seized the opportunity.

“I said this could be my chance,” he said. “… At first the hole was pretty tight.”

Smith said he didn’t see Velazquez until too late.

“I could have tried to make a difference, but you don’t want to let the stewards (decide) the outcome of a race like this,” he said. “If I tried to do anything, I was going to put him in harm, and I certainly didn’t want to do that, either.”

John Velzquez & Union Rags
“I thought he rode a brilliant race,” Union Rags’ trainer Michael Matz  said of Velazquez. “Whether he got up there or wouldn’t, he still rode a great race. … He’s a strong rider, he knows Belmont, and those were some of the things that went into picking John.”

Velazquez, who will be inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in August, now has won three Triple Crown races, and all came after rider changes. He won the 2007 Belmont with Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches, after jockey Garrett Gomez had a prior commitment for the race. He won last year’s Kentucky Derby on Animal Kingdom after Robby Albarado was kicked in the face by a horse.

Houston Astros Officially Sign Correa‎

Signed, sealed, delivered! Following his historic first round pick in the MLB draft, Carlos Correa has agreed to a contract with the Houston Astros for a signing bonus of $4.8 million.

The 17-year-old Puerto Rican shortstop was at Minute Maid Park on Thursday for the official announcement and met with players and took batting practice with the team.

Carlos Correa

“We’re absolutely thrilled to have him as a part of our organization,” said Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. “It’s a monumental day for us and for him and for the city of Houston. We’re delighted.”

Correa picked the No. 12 jersey he donned on Thursday because he was the top pick in 2012 and because he admires fellow Puerto Rican player Roberto Alomar, who wore the number.

Carlos Correa

Correa will head back to Puerto Rico to graduate from high school this weekend before joining the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League on Tuesday. And, he’s thrilled to be able to get a deal done quickly so he can begin his baseball career.

“It means a lot,” said Correa. “I want to play baseball. I want to play for the Houston Astros. I don’t want to lose time. I feel comfortable signing early. I like this team. I just want to work hard.”

Correa is the highest draft pick ever from Puerto Rico. And, he’s also the first shortstop to get drafted first overall since Tampa Bay selected Tim Beckham in 2008, and the fourth shortstop taken with the top pick since 1994.

St. Louis Cardinals players Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina, both from Puerto Rico, came onto the field early before their game against the Astros to meet Correa and talk to and pose for pictures with his family. Beltran was excited that Correa was chosen first in the draft.

“It really means a lot,” said Beltran, adding that he called to congratulate him on draft night. “I think Correa is a hero in Puerto Rico being the first pick overall. At the same time, it’s going to motivate a lot of kids back home in Puerto Rico to continue to play the game of baseball.”

The Astros, who fell to a franchise-worst 56-106 last season to earn the top pick, are hoping Correa develops into a superstar. And he seems ready for the challenge.

“I just want to get to the big league level the quickest that I can,” said the baseball phenom. “I want to be a leader. I want to be the face of the franchise. That’s what I want as a player. I will work hard right now to be a great player, an impact player in the big leagues.”

González Makes a Strong Showing at the French Open

He may not have raised the championship trophy at the French Open, but Santiago González still has plenty of reason to be proud of his performance at Roland Garros.

The 29-year-old Mexican tenista and his mixed doubles partner Klaudia Jans-Ignacek—who lost in the finals on Thursday to No. 7 seeds Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi 7-6(3), 6-1—weren’t even expected to make it past the first round.

Santiago Gonzalez at the French Open

González and Jans-Ignacek weren’t ranked coming into the tournament, but defeated No. 8 seeds Nadia Petrova and Daniel Nestor in the first round to lay down a marker.

And the unheralded pairing looked like they would continue their Parisian fairy-tale right through to the title when they broke Mirza’s first service game to lead 2-0. But Gonzalez could not serve out the first set at 5-4, allowing the Indian team to get back on serve. The set would end in a tie-break, with Mirza and Bhupathi winning it 7-3.

Santiago Gonzalez at the French Open

In the second set, it seemed like the magic was gone with Bhupathi and Mirza cruising to two breaks and winning 6-1.

For González—who won a gold medal in mixed doubles at last year’s Pan American Games in Guadalajara—it was his best showing at a Grand Slam tournament, besting his previous-best showing at this year’s Australian Open.

Nadal & Ferrer to Play an All-Spanish French Open Semifinal

Its official… a Spaniard will compete in the French Open Men’s Championship for the 10th time in 12 years after Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer won their quarterfinal matches on Wednesday.

David Ferrer & Rafael Nadal

Nadal scored his 50th match victory at Roland Garros – one more than Swedish great Bjorn Borg’s tally and six short of the all-time record held by Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas – by defeating his countryman Nicolas Almagro 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-3 in two hours and 46 minutes.

More importantly, the win put him within two victories of a record seventh French Open title; Nadal currently shares the mark with Borg.

Shortly afterward, the 30-year-old Ferrer reached the semifinals at tennis’ biggest clay-court event for the first time ever with his 6-4, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-2 victory over Scotland’s Andy Murray.

Rafael Nadal
Even though Nadal’s victory was never really in question, the 26-year-old tenista was forced to play his first tiebreaker of this year’s tournament in the first set against Almagro, who put the world No. 2 on his heels at times by unleashing powerful blasts off both forehand and backhand.

But when it mattered most in the tiebreaker, Almagro made a costly error on a drop shot and later lost a 34-ball rally to fall behind 4-0, eventually losing that first-set decider by a score of 7-4.

The rest of the match was then practically a formality considering Nadal’s record at the French Open when winning the first set was 46-0 coming into the contest, although Almagro’s potent shot-making brought out the best in Nadal’s defensive skills.

“You cannot expect to win an easy match in (the) quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, (the) quarterfinals of Roland Garros,” Nadal said in the post-match press conference. (It) was a tough one, but I am through and I am very happy.”

He also looked ahead to his semifinal against good friend Ferrer. Nadal holds a 12-1 career edge in their meetings on clay but he’s expecting a difficult challenge on Friday.

“We (have) played each other a lot of times. His game bothers everybody because he’s one of the best players in the world on every surface – on clay especially,” Nadal said. “He’s a complete player. It’s very difficult to play against him, because his movement is probably the best in the world and he’s able to hit the ball very early a lot of the time.”

David Ferrer
Meanwhile, Ferrer used his forehand to dictate most of the rallies in his grueling, three-hour, 45-minute slugfest Wednesday against Murray, shrugging off a second-set hiccup and a half-hour rain delay at the start of the third set.

The world No. 6 wore a big smile after a Murray backhand went wide on match point, thrilled to finally reach the final four of this Grand Slam event after several disappointing losses in previous years.

“My first time in semifinal in Roland Garros, so I feel good,” Ferrer said after his win. “It was a very tough match, and I’m very happy. Maybe it was in important moments I played better than him. I played very good with my forehand.”

Referring to the daunting task that awaits him in the next round, Ferrer said he will “try and play a beautiful match, my best tennis.”

With Wednesday’s results, Spain will be represented in the French Open final for the 10th time in the last 12 years; 2004 and 2009 were the only exceptions.

The victor in the Nadal-Ferrer match will play the winner of Friday’s other semifinal, which will pit world No. 1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia and world No. 3 Roger Federer of Switzerland.

Fernández to Captain the 2012 Women’s Olympic Tennis Team…

She may have retired from professional tennis play in 2000… But that isn’t stopping Mary Joe Fernández from heading to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

The 40-year-old Dominican American tenista will serve as the U.S. captain of the women’s tennis team at the games.

Mary Joe Fernandez

Fernández, who won three medals of her own in two Olympics appearances, was formally introduced on Tuesday by the U.S. Tennis Association.

“When I look back at my career, the highlight was being at the Olympics,” said the tennis commentator and ESPN analyst who won a gold and bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games and a gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “Just being a part of it, something you’ve watched on TV as a little kid and cheered, and then all of a sudden you go to being there. You ask yourself, ‘Is this really happening?’ I’m really lucky to get to be part of that all again. Three times, wow, I’m very lucky to get to do this again.”

Mary Joe Fernandez

Fernández will await the nomination process of her team, which will kick off with the release of the post-French Open rankings on June 11. The Olympic tournament runs July 28 through Aug. 5 and will be held at the All England Club, the site of Wimbledon.

She’ll likely have Venus Williams and Serena Williams, Christina McHale and Varvara Lepchenko, plus doubles players Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond on her team.

The team will be finalized by the USTA and the International Tennis Federation, then submitted to the U.S. Olympic Committee for final nomination to the London Games in the

One of Fernández’s biggest challenges: monitoring the health of Venus Williams, who is hoping to play singles, doubles with her sister Serena, and mixed doubles, all while dealing with the symptoms of Sjorgen’s syndrome.

“Venus has been very open with me with about how she’s feeling, which I appreciate,” said Fernández, who also is the U.S. Fed Cup captain. “She’s been fantastic in letting me know what’s going on, and that’s important for us to know. She’s done an incredible job getting her ranking up so she can be on the team. We’ll see how everybody does at Wimbledon and make some decisions going forward. I think we’re all just really excited about heading to London, especially Wimbledon, for the Olympics.”

Correa Becomes the MLB’s First Puerto Rican No. 1 Draft Pick

He’s only 17-year-old… But Carlos Correa has already made it into annals of baseball…

The Houston Astros selected the Puerto Rican baseball phenom as the No. 1 pick Monday night, making him the first player from Puerto Rico to lead off the Major League Baseball draft.

Carlos Correa

“This means a lot,” said Correa, who was all smiles when he heard his name called, knowing he’d made hometown history at the baseball draft. “We’ve got a lot of good players there.”

Despite producing its share of baseball royalty like Roberto Clemente, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Juan Gonzalez and Bernie Williams, Correa is the first selection from Puerto Rico. Some of those players signed as free agents — catcher Ramon Castro had been the highest-drafted player out of Puerto Rico, going No. 17 to Houston in 1994.

“I feel so excited to be the No. 1 pick,” said Correa, who was congratulated by Delgado on Twitter. “I’ve worked so hard to be here.”

It was the first time Houston had the top pick in the draft since 1992, when the Astros selected Phil Nevin — passing on future star Derek Jeter, who went five spots later to the New York Yankees.

“I have read about that,” said Correa, calling Jeter his idol. “I want to be like him. He’s awesome.”

Carlos Correa

First-year Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said Correa “has a chance to be a star” who could hit 20-30 home runs in the pros, whether it’s in his current role as a shortstop or “ultimately maybe third base.”

Correa said he’d like to stay at shortstop and plans to use his signing bonus to help his family.

As he walked to the podium and shook hands with commissioner Bud Selig before a brief hug, Correa pulled out a small Puerto Rican flag and held it up to cheers from the crowd of major league representatives and fans gathered in the stadium-themed studio.

While recent drafts lacked first-pick intrigue, Luhnow said the Astros didn’t settle on Correa until about an hour before they went on the clock. Several mock draft lists predicted the Astros would select Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, but instead Houston made a somewhat surprising selection — although Correa was considered one of the top five players available.

Correa, who has an incredibly strong arm and terrific instincts on defense, may be the highly sought after “big-time bat” for the middle of Astros lineup. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound star from Santa Isabel was a star at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. He’s committed to the University of Miami, but will likely head to Houston’s farm system instead.

“Right now, he stays at shortstop and if he was to happen to grow out of it, it’s the power that’s the attraction here and it’s the middle of the order potential impact bat,” Astros scouting director and assistant general manager Bobby Heck said. “So if he has to move, his profile is still very, very strong.”

Meanwhile, Florida high school outfielder Albert Almora was selected sixth by the Chicago Cubs.

“I’m speechless,” said Almora by phone in an interview with MLB.com, about an hour after the 18-year-old was drafted. “I don’t remember much of anything that happened tonight. I know that the Cubs drafted me, and I’m grateful, but I’m still kind of shocked and overwhelmed.”

The first round and the compensation rounds are completed Monday night, with rounds 2 through 40 conducted over the next two days via conference call with the teams.

Santana Pitches the First No-Hitter in New York Mets’ History

It’s hard to believe that in more than 8,000 games, the New York Mets had never pitched a no-hitter… But that all changed in game 8,020, thanks to Johan Santana.

The 33-year-old Venezuelan pitched the first no-hitter in New York Mets’ history on Friday in the Mets’ 8-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Johan Santana

Aided by an umpire’s missed call and an incredible catch by a left fielder who grew up in Queens as a Mets fan, Santana’s start is also the first no-hitter of his career.

In the victory over the reigning World Series champions, Santana, who missed last season because of shoulder surgery, walked five and struck out eight, while testing the limits of his comeback.

Mets manager Terry Collins said before the game that he wanted to limit Santana to a maximum of 110-115 pitches. Santana finished with a career-high 134.

Johan Santana

Afterward, an emotional Collins expressed his trepidation about going after history instead of preserving Santana’s long-term health.

“I just couldn’t take him out,” Collins said.

In the ninth inning with 27,609 fans all standing, Santana’s final pitch, a 3-2 change-up, resulted in David Freese swinging and missing. Santana’s teammates all stormed the mound to celebrate.

Johan Santana

“I don’t think I’ve ever even thrown a no-hitter in video games,” Santana said of his feat.

But that’s not all… Santana became just the eighth player in MLB history to throw a no-hitter against the defending World Series champions and the first since former Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan completed the feat against the Oakland Athletics in 1990.

After the final out, Santana did interviews with the Mets’ TV and radio station before he walked into the clubhouse.

“We did this together,” Santana said. “It is not just about me. We had a great, great game tonight. Everyone participated. We did the little things the way we were supposed to do it. And it worked out good. I thanked them because we as a team made history tonight.”

Batista to Sign with Shanghai Shenhua…

Sergio Batista may soon be taking his soccer coaching skills to Asia…

The 49-year-old Argentine fútbol coach is expected to sign with Shanghai Shenhua in another high-profile hiring by a Chinese Super League team.

Sergio Batista

The club has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday to introduce its new coach, although no other details were given on Shenhua’s website.

Batista, who has been in China since Friday, met on Monday with the club’s star signing, former Chelsea player Nicolas Anelka, who has been leading a five-man coaching lineup since the departure of Jean Tigana of France last month.

Batista helped Argentina win the 1986 World Cup as a player, and coached the Argentine Olympic squad to the gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

Chinese teams recently have begun emerging from years of poor management and match-fixing scandals to splurge on foreign coaches and players, a reflection of China’s growing economic might and thirst for global recognition.

Chinese clubs hope the big names will boost sponsorship and give the league wider recognition, although the dearth of homegrown talent remains a glaring problem for the national team, a perennial underperformer in international competition.

Among other the recent signings, Super League champion Guangzhou Evergrande broke the Chinese transfer spending record to sign Argentine playmaker Dario Conca for $10 million from Fluminense, reportedly making him the third-highest paid player in the world.

The Evergrande followed up this month by hiring coach Marcello Lippi, who guided Italy to the 2006 World Cup title.

Almagro Defends His Title at the Nice Open

Following an impressive run in France, Nicolas Almagro has claimed his 12th career title.

The 26-year-old Spanish tenista defeated American qualifier Brian Baker 6-3, 6-2 to win the Open de Nice Côte d’Azur on Saturday and clinch his second title of the season and 12th of his career.

Nicolas Almagro

Almagro, currently ranked No. 12 in the world, broke the 216th-ranked Baker’s serve in the fourth and eighth games of the second set. And, the defending champion had 11 aces in the match.

Almagro concluded his impressive run without dropping a set all week. And he improved to 12-5 lifetime in ATP World Tour finals after he beat Baker in a mere 70 minutes at the French Riviera tournament.

“I played my best tennis in two years here,” said Almagro. “I am very happy with my serve and my forehand. I moved on the court very, very well. Today, was one of those matches you want to keep in your mind for the rest of the season, because I couldn’t have played much better. Today was amazing. I am happy with my form, my tennis and my team. We will aim to keep working hard, so I play, in future, as I did today.”

Almagro improved to 35-11 on the season, which includes one other trophy success at the Brasil Open in Sao Paulo.

Maldonado Makes History By Clinching the Spanish Grand Prix

It’s one for the history books for Pastor Maldonado

The 27-year-old Formula One driver produced the race of his life to hold off Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix to became the first Venezuelan driver to win a Formula One race.

Pastor Maldonado

It was a flawless drive for Maldonado, who started from the pole and survived the challenge by Alonso to take the 66-lap race at the Catalunya Circuit by 3.1 seconds.

“It’s a wonderful day for me and the team. An unforgettable race,” said Maldonado, who was hoisted onto the shoulders of Alonso and Raikkonen before being doused in champagne. “It was a tough race, with the strategy and a couple of laps we were struggling. But the car was so competitive from the first lap.”

Pastor Maldonado

Maldonado’s victory, in just his 24th race, handed Williams its 114th triumph but first since the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix. The Venezuelan driver also became 2012’s fifth winner in five races.

But in a dramatic turn of events for Maldonado… The Venezuelan race car driver ended he day a hero when he carried his young cousin to safety after flames engulfed the team garage.

Pastor Maldonado

In all, 16 people were injured, one with severe burns, by the fire – believed to have been caused by an electrical fault in a fuel rig.

Maldonado had to carry his 12-year-old cousin Manuel, wearing a protective boot on a broken right foot, to safety as thick, black smoke billowed down the pit lane at the Catalunya circuit.

The Williams team said four of its members were injured.