Preps Talk

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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High School Lites Week 9 football roundup

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High School Lites Week 9 football roundup

High School Lites featured plenty of great action on Friday night as NBC Sports Chicago had highlights of many of the area's top matchups. Some playoff dreams came to fruition while others crashed and burned. 

Watch tomorrow as the IHSA playoff brackets are revealed tomorrow on NBC Sports Chicago+ at 8 p.m. Be sure to also follow us on Twitter @NBCSPreps for all of the latest IHSA football scores and highlights. 

DRIVE: Prairie Ridge: Episode 10

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Back of the Yards QB Jeremiah Harris

St. Xavier Team of the Week: De La Salle Meteors

Friday's Top 25 Games

No. 1 Lincoln-Way East 18, No. 19 Bolingbrook 14 

No. 2 Prairie Ridge 55, Dundee-Crown 14

No. 3 Maine South 56, Niles West 9

No. 4 Marist 42, Joliet Catholic 14

No. 5 Lake Zurich , Mundelein

No. 6 Phillips 53, Clark 0

No. 9 Homewood-Flossmoor 50, Sandburg 14

No. 10 Barrington 40, Conant 19

No. 11 Huntley 45, McHenry 7

No. 12 Naperville Central 35, Lake Park 21

No. 13 Hinsdale Central 42, Hinsdale South 14

No. 24 St. Charles North 35, No. 14 Batavia 28

No. 16 Wheaton North 20, Waubonsie Valley 10

No. 17 Crete-Monee 52, Cahokia 8

No. 18 St. Rita 47, Marmion 14

No. 20 Lyons 31, Oak Park-River Forest 14

No. 21 Nazareth 48, Marian Catholic 7

No. 22 Oswego 30, Plainfield Central 0

Mount Carmel 35, No. 23 Providence 34

Other Highlights

Tinley Park 29, Evergreen Park 0

T.F. South 21, Oak Forest 14

Glenbard North 24, Neuqua Valley 14

St. Edward 29, Wheaton Academy 28

Marian Central Catholic 44, St. Patrick 21

Saturday's Top 25 Games

No. 7 Loyola vs. Brother Rice

No. 8 Glenbard West vs. Proviso West

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.