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.
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.”
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.”
“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.