ELMONT, N.Y. -- By the time jockey John Velazquez had knifed Union Rags along the rail to win the Belmont Stakes in a photo finish Saturday, I'll Have Another, the colt positioned perfectly to win the Triple Crown, had been tucked quietly behind the closed door to his stall in Barn 9 at Belmont Park.
His trainer, Doug O'Neill, was supposed to be there with him, watching the Belmont Stakes unfold on a television at the barn. That's where O'Neill said he was going after he walked out of the grandstand following the emotional retirement ceremony for I'll Have Another in the winner's circle before the race.
That's where O'Neill could have answered the one essential postrace question:
Won't everybody believe that I'll Have Another would have dusted this plodding field?
Only two of the past dozen Belmonts have been won in a slower time than the 2:30.42 Union Rags needed to stick his neck ahead of front-running Paynter at the wire.
Slow? It was the 38th-slowest winning time for the mile-and-a-half race in the last 42 years.
"Who knows?" trainer Kenny McPeek said.
Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know. But they'll wonder.
Union Rags barreled through a slim opening on the rail to edge Paynter.
"We needed every bit of the mile and a half," winning trainer Michael Matz said.
I'll Have Another's absence opened up the race for Union Rags, who finished a troubled seventh in the Kentucky Derby after a bumpy start.
Union Rags skipped the Preakness and because of the Derby problems switched jockeys for the Belmont -- from Julien Leparoux to John Velazquez.
"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.
Paynter and Union Rags furiously battled down the stretch, with Union Rags barely catching the front-runner in the second straight photo finish to decide a Triple Crown race this year.
Jockey Mike Smith took the blame for Paynter's loss.
"I'm an old veteran, you know," he said. "They're not supposed to get through on the fence on me, and he did. I dropped the ball. My fault."
Union Rags was along the inside in the middle of the pack until it was time to make a move for the lead, and that's when Velazquez guided him to the inside of the front-running Paynter. 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. Suddenly, a sliver appeared when Paynter slid over just enough to let Union Rags through in the final sixteenth of a mile.
I'll Have Another earned his applause Saturday; he simply didn't earn it on the racetrack. The crowd of 85,811 roared as if the colt was crackling down the stretch when he was led to the winner's circle 40 minutes before the race.
Jockey Mario Gutierrez sobbed as if he was finally starting to process the news that the colt actually was skipping the Belmont to begin his retirement. O'Neill quipped that it was a great day and that he was wagering on Dullahan and Paynter in the Belmont.
"No mixed emotions," he said. "It's been great. I feel great."
Then, O'Neill waved his son, Daniel, and daughter, Kayle Dixie, into a gray Dodge van with Wisconsin license plates parked in the Belmont valet lot for the short drive to Barn 9 to watch the race. They never showed up.
Assistant trainer Jack Sisterson said he had not seen O'Neill. Nobody at the barn had.
When it comes to this colt, this trainer, and this Triple Crown, we always will have another mystery.
Was it really a tendon injury that dictated the decision by O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam to scratch the colt about 30 hours before the race?
Or was the colt stopped by the stricter enforcement of medication rules in New York that resulted in all the Belmont Stakes horses moving to a supervised detention barn three days before the race?
"An injury like that should have been noticed at least a week before the race," said Michael Desano, a former trainer who works with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America at tracks in New York.
"I just don't like the setup of the whole thing."
Horse racing always makes it easy to dial up conspiracy theories. There was one heard often Saturday that O'Neill and Reddam decided to scratch the horse to protect his value as a stallion. That's a tough one to sell unless you also believe they were convinced I'll Have Another could not win the Belmont. Had it won the Belmont, horse racing would have had its first Triple Crown winner in the last 34 years, and his stud value would have soared.
But nobody, it seems, left Belmont without trying to handicap everything that occurred the last two days.
The winning time was uninspiring. I'll Have Another beat Union Rags by 7 1/2 lengths in the Kentucky Derby. The colt handled Paynter by 3 3/4 lengths in the Santa Anita Derby April 7.
He wins this race. He wins it with conviction. He ends the 34-year gap between Triple Crown winners, right?
"The way they ran today, it would not have surprised me if we would have had a Triple Crown winner, if he had come in here at his best," said trainer Dale Romans, whose Dullahan finished seventh.
"With that being said, that's part of the deal. You have to hit all three races healthy."
Yes, you do. I'll Have Another didn't. But there always will be questions.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and television station WDRB-TV, Louisville. Rick Bozich is a reporter with WDRB-TV.