Union Rags nips Paynter to win Belmont Stakes

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Union Rags nips Paynter to win Belmont Stakes

NEW YORK Union Rags picked up where I'll Have Another left off coming from behind to catch a Bob Baffert-trained horse at the finish in a Triple Crown race.

In Saturday's Belmont Stakes, it was even a photo finish.

Union Rags rallied through an opening on the rail to edge Paynter by a neck, dealing Baffert a third loss in this year's Triple Crown series.

I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with stirring stretch drives over Baffert's Bodemeister. But the champion stunned the racing world Friday when he was scratched from the Belmont and retired due to a tendon injury, relinquishing a shot at the first Triple Crown sweep since 1978 and only the 12th ever.

His absence opened up the race for Union Rags, who finished a troubled seventh in the Derby.

A crowd of 85,811 cheered as Paynter and Union Rags battled down the stretch, and Union Rags barely caught the front-runner at the end to win by a neck.

Trained by Michael Matz, Union Rags skipped the Preakness and switched jockeys for the Belmont from Julien Leparoux to John Velazquez, who picked up his second Belmont victory; he won in 2007 with filly Rags to Riches.

"I have to give it to the horse. He did it all for me. He just worked so unbelievable and I was just hoping he could put that work into today's race and he did," Velazquez said. "I was very proud of him.'"

Union Rags was along the inside in the middle of the pack until it was time to make a move for the lead. Velazquez guided Union Rags to the inside of the front-running Paynter and relentlessly closed the gap and won by a neck.

The 5-2 second choice behind Dullahan, Union Rags covered the 1 miles in 2:30.42. The colt owned by Phyllis Wyeth returned 7.50, 4.20 and 3.40. Paynter paid 5.10 and 3.90. Atigun was third and paid 10.60.

"It was my dream and he made it come true," said Wyeth, wheelchair-bound as the result of a 1962 car accident in which she broke her neck. "Nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny. That was unbelievable. He just said, 'Move over, I'm coming.' He believed in the horse and Michael got him there."

Paynter and jockey Mike Smith bolted to the lead out of the gate and stayed in front under a moderate pace, with long shots Unstoppable U and Optimizer tucked behind him. Union Rags saved ground by hugging the rail all the way around, while Dullhan dropped back to ninth in the 11-horse field.

Turning for home, Union Rags was full of run but needed an opening. Velazquez had no room to swing outside, so he focused on finding a hole along the rail. It wasn't clear that the opening would materialize since Paynter continued to lead the way.

But Paynter slid off the rail enough to let Union Rags through in the final sixteenth of a mile. And then it was a charge to the finish line.

Union Rags and Paynter raced head-to-head, with both jockeys furiously whipping their horses in the shadow of the wire. Union Rags stuck a neck in front in a finish that was decided by a photo.

"He ran a great, great race, but I'm not too proud of my performance, though," said Smith, a 46-year-old Hall of Fame jockey who was aboard Bodemeister in the two earlier defeats. "I'm an old veteran, you know. They're not supposed to get through on the fence on me, and he did. I dropped the ball. My fault."

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Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

A milk carton was a more likely place to find Bobby Portis than on a basketball floor playing big minutes for the majority of his second season.

He could often be found in the locker room before games and listening to the older players talk to the media afterward, trying his best to fight off the frustration and admitted confusion that comes with the regression of not getting playing time.

When Portis did play, he looked nothing like the confident and borderline cocky rookie who often referred to himself in the third person in interviews. He didn't know when he would play, how long he would be out there or even worse, what was expected of him.

The trade of Taj Gibson at the deadline — preceded by the temporary benching of Nikola Mirotic — put Portis back in the spotlight and he's intent on making the most of it during the last 23 games of the regular season.

"It's fun. You know go out there every day just to know that it's another day I'm going to play," Portis said. "That's the biggest thing for me. I feel like that's already a confidence builder right there, just coming into every game knowing that I'm in the rotation. It's great fun to go out there and play."

It's no secret the front office the Bulls want Portis to succeed and not add him to the ledger of some of the first-round disappointments that can be recalled in recent memory.

The trade of Gibson was certainly underlined with the mantra that Portis should play and the way was going to be cleared for Portis, one way or another. Scoring 19 with eight rebounds against the Celtics on national TV right before the All-Star break probably gave Portis enough validation considering he was thrust into the starting lineup at power forward soon after.

"I don't care about nobody judging me," Portis said. "At the end of the day I'm going to play basketball. That's my job. I'm going to go out there and do the things I do well. I feel like sometimes people misconstrue just because you don't play and they can say some things like that. I don't really care about anybody judging me at this point. At the end of the day I'm still going to be Bobby Portis at the end of the day."

Well, clearly, the third person thing hasn't left the second-year forward, but he said he stayed in the gym waiting on his opportunity, even through a quick but confusing stint to Hoffman Estates to the D-League.

"Just being hungry. Humble and hungry," Portis said. "You know one thing I always strive off of is being humble and hungry. That kept me sane. My mom, I talked to her a lot. She kept me grounded. It's kind of tough not playing and going through the season knowing that some games you might play, you might not play. You know it's about waiting your turn, but at the same time you have to keep working."

Being the fifth big in Fred Hoiberg's rotation didn't leave him a lot of room for Portis to get much run or even find a rhythm, and like many others who've found themselves out of the rotation unexpectedly, it was without much of an explanation.

"Nah, I didn't really know what I could do to get minutes," Portis said. "The one thing that I know that I always do is just come in here every day, work as hard as I can, let the dominos fall how they fall. Every day I come in here, just bust my butt for some minutes, but sometimes it wouldn't work."

Now that he has found himself into Hoiberg's good graces, his improving range has allowed both units to play similiarly.

"I think Bobby has done a real nice job," Hoiberg said. "He was a huge part of our win against Boston in our game right before the break. He just goes out and plays with so much energy. What I really like about him right now is he has no hesitation on his shot. He's stepping into his 3 with good rhythm."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bears will not use franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bears will not use franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Friedell (ESPNChicago.com) and Danny Parkins (670 The Score) join David Kaplan on the panel.

NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reports that the Bears will not use the franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery for the second straight year. Is that the right move? And what will Ryan Pace do with all of his team’s cap space?

The Bulls are winning but their new, young point guard doesn’t know his role. Will anything ever change with the Bulls?

That plus Scott Paddock drops by to recapping a thrilling Daytona 500 finish.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: