NEW YORK — Even with its star sidelined and no Triple Crown to contest, the Belmont Stakes proved this much: The show does go on.
And it went on pretty well, thanks to a thrilling race and a photo finish.
Fans were rewarded with a sizzling finale to the season’s Triple Crown series when Union Rags overcame Paynter in the closing strides to win by a neck. I’ll Have Another’s victory over Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby was decided by 1½ lengths. The chestnut colt followed up with an even closer neck victory over his rival in the Preakness, the same margin Union Rags won by on Saturday at Belmont Park.
“It was a very exciting race at the end,” winning jockey John Velazquez said. “The public should be happy with it.”
The Belmont lost its main attraction on the eve of the race when I’ll Have Another was suddenly and shockingly retired with a left front tendon injury.
Belmont Park officials had expected a crowd of about 100,000 to see if I’ll Have Another could end the 34-year drought of Triple Crown winners. Instead, 85,811 fans showed up — the largest ever for a non-Triple try and sixth-biggest at the track, bettering by 16.2 percent the previous record of 73,857 in 2001 when no Triple sweep was in play. The attendance was up nearly 54 percent from the 55,779 who showed up last year.
“We spent more money on marketing this year to promote the day,” New York Racing Association spokesman Dan Silver said.
The on-track crowd wagered $13,777,920 on the 13-race card, second-largest at the Belmont Stakes. The figure trailed the $14,461,402 bet in 2004 when Birdstone spoiled the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones. Nationwide betting totaled more than $96 million, third-highest for Belmont Stakes day.
“Racing is still alive and well, and this week was an example,” said trainer Dale Romans, who saddled wagering favorite Dullahan to a seventh-place finish. “There was a lot of excitement around here. This Triple Crown was at its best.”
Overnight television ratings for the race on NBC were up 13 percent from last year, according to ratings data from the Nielsen Co. The 5.4 overnight rating was the highest for a Belmont without a Triple Crown bid since 2005 on the network, which aired all three Triple Crown races for the second straight year. Final numbers will be out Tuesday.
“It was an outstanding day of racing that Belmont Park put on, and I think the Belmont Stakes in particular was an outstanding race,” said trainer Chad Brown, whose horse, Street Life, finished fourth. “Yeah, we lost a major player in I’ll Have Another, and everyone was disappointed with that; however, I think the best horse won the race.”
Much of the pre-race publicity had focused on I’ll Have Another and his bid to become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner. Not having him in the Belmont is something that “down the road people will forget about and realize Union Rags ran a good race,” Romans said Sunday. “I think people kind of forgot how good of a horse Union Rags is.”
That’s because the colt who was the Derby favorite had a troubled trip in that race, and then sat out the Preakness while I’ll Have Another put himself in position to make history. Instead, he became the first horse since 1936 to win the first two legs and then fail to run in the third.
“Tendons are funky injuries,” trainer Doug O’Neill said Sunday from his base at Betfair Hollywood Park. “He was never sore. It really is like the rubber band analogy; once they lose natural elasticity, it takes a long time to regain it, if ever. With tendon injuries, sometimes they come back 60 to 80 percent of what they were, and that wouldn’t be fair to the horse.”
After removing I’ll Have Another’s saddle for the final time in a winner’s circle appearance before the Belmont, O’Neill and his staff watched the race on television back at the barn.
O’Neill said he will fight a 45-day suspension handed down between the Preakness and the Belmont.
Throughout the five-week stretch of Triple Crown races, O’Neill was under intense scrutiny because of his history of medication violations, including one from 2010 that earned him the suspension starting next month.
I’ll Have Another was set to return to California on Monday.
“It usually takes horses 10 days to two weeks to wind down,” O’Neill said. “Once he’s ready to go to the ranch, he will. I’d love to keep him around forever, but he’ll stay with us until he has a final spot.
“Hopefully in the next few weeks, they’ll ink some type of deal.”
Trainer Bob Baffert was still absorbing the shock of finishing second in all three Triple Crown races. His Paynter led most of the way until getting caught deep in the stretch by Union Rags. Paynter lost his left rear shoe in the race.
“Second is still sinking in,” Baffert said.
Paynter was also headed back to California on Monday, with plans to return to New York in August for the Travers at Saratoga. Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister is being pointed toward the Haskell Invitational at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park in late July.