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Union Rags nips Paynter to win Belmont Stakes

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Union Rags nips Paynter to win Belmont Stakes

By Beth Harris
AP Racing Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Union Rags nipped Paynter in a photo finish to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, beating a field without U.S. Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another who was retired with an injury.

The finish was another thriller in the final leg of the Triple Crown, and trainer Bob Baffert was on the losing end again.

I'll Have Another used two stirring drives to beat Baffert's Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. But the champion stunned the horse racing world on 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 straight, 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 12 miles (2,400 meters) 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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John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

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USA TODAY Sports

John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

The Capitals had two major items on their to-do list this offseason: Sign a coach and re-sign defenseman John Carlson. Now all they need is a coach.

Carlson was on the verge of becoming one of the most sought-after free agents of the summer on July 1. Instead, he has agreed to a major deal to stay in Washington, it has been confirmed to NBC Sports Washington. The deal will be for eight years, $64 million carrying a cap hit of $8 million per year.

The contract also reportedly includes protection for the lockout seasons.

The Caps attached Brooks Orpik and his $5.5 million cap hit along with Philipp Grubauer in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche on Friday, helping free up a significant amount of cap space to help re-sign the star defenseman.

Carlson, 28, had a career year with 15 goals and 68 points in 2017-18. He followed that up with an incredibly strong postseason performance with five goals and 20 points in 24 games.

The Carlson contract was one of the biggest decisions of the offseason because of the trickle-down effect it will have on the team's remaining free agents. Now general manager Brian MacLellan knows exactly how much he has to spend on free agents like Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly.

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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

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USA TODAY Sports

Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

Free agency does not start until July 1, but John Carlson's agent is already taking calls from other interested teams.

The interview period began at 12 a.m. on Sunday morning, which means teams are now able to reach out to any potential free agents, but no contracts can be signed until July 1. While Brian MacLellan said Friday that a new deal with Carlson to keep him in Washington was "really close," Carlson's agent, Rick Curran, has made it clear there was no deal in place yet as of Sunday.

So does this mean Carlson now has one foot out the door?

Not necessarily.

At this point in the negotiation, Carlson has a major advantage and that advantage is time. Sunday's interview period is just another way to hold the Caps' feet to the fire. The closer we get to July 1, the more pressure the team is under to get a deal done.

But the Caps still have some leverage too.

“I love it here and all that,” Carlson said during on breakdown day. “I want to stay here, but there's more to it than that.”

By rule, as his current team, the Caps are the only team that can offer Carlson an eight-year deal.

So Carlson may have turned up the heat a few degrees on the Caps, but it's not time for fans to worry just yet.

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