The third jewel of the Triple Crown turned into a heart-stopper even though the retirement Friday of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I'll Have Another precluded any chance of the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.
Union Rags, who had a nightmare trip in the Derby, made up for it in the Belmont. With John Velazquez riding him for the first time, the Dixie Union colt sat in the middle of the field, while Paynter sped along on the lead. In the stretch, Paynter came off the rail just enough to allow Union Rags through and he went on to win by a head, leading only in the final jumps.
A long shot, Atigun, finished third.
Union Rags ran the 1 1/2 miles in 2:30.42 over a fast track.
"He was very brave to get through there," Velazquez said of Union Rags' stretch move.
Mike Smith, who rode Paynter, later blamed himself for the narrow loss, saying a veteran rider should not have let the rail open for a rival.
Union Rags as a 2-year-old looked like a candidate to win the Triple Crown. But then he narrowly lost the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to Hansen last fall. After winning the Fountain of Youth in his seasonal debut, he had traffic problems in the Florida Derby and settled for second.
In the Kentucky Derby, he was squeezed back at the start, forced to take up in the backstretch and still put in a late run to finish seventh. After that, trainer Michael Matz decided to pass on the Preakness and rest his colt for the final Triple Crown race.
"We finally got to see the real Union Rags," Matz said after the Belmont.
Trainer Bob Baffert saddled Bodemeister to finish second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Saturday, he substituted Paynter only to suffer the same result in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.
While the late scratch of I'll Have Another with a tendon injury took some of the luster from the 144th Belmont Stakes, 85,811 fans still filled Belmont Park amid intermittent showers to see the race.
I'll Have Another has been retired from racing. The colt was looking to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.