The interminable wait finally ended Saturday at Belmont Park.
Not for a Triple Crown winner. That wait continues — and will continue to continue for God only knows how long.
But when Union Rags did what injured Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another could not — finish first in the anachronistic marathon called the Belmont Stakes — Union’s army of acolytes at long last ended their vigil.
Break out the holy bubbly, and snuff out the votive candles. The One? He won.
The big, beautiful critter finally won a big, important race. A race almost as big as his reputation.
As a 2-year-old last fall, Union Rags conquered in flashy fashion a pair of old and famous stakes races. He did so in New York, where a raging messiah complex rages. The next Secretariat is right around the bend (provided the bend leads to the gilded summer meet at Saratoga, of course).
The past anointed include Alydar, Easy Goer, Favorite Trick and Empire Maker. Fine animals, all. Fine animals with one thing in common. They most definitely weren’t The One. Hell, they weren’t even The Derby Winner.
But Union Rags would change that, by golly.
Even after Rags lost three straight Grade 1 races — the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Derbys of Florida and Kentucky — his fans’ faith never wavered. They were narrow defeats, after all, and asterisked with exculpating excuses. Blocked in. Pinched back. Dog ate his homework.
Even after Rags ran seventh in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness altogether, trainer Michael Matz still talked about the Triple Crown as manifest destiny denied. O cruel fate! In the Belmont, Matz implied, his star pupil would be redeemed.
The faithful crossed themselves and prepared to wager. Skeptics prepared for another ritual sacrifice, incensed.
Ooh, that smell. Can’t you smell that smell? It’s parimutuel patchouli, baby. The burning of more money at the altar of Union Rags.
He was even money in the Breeders’ Cup. Odds-on in the Florida Derby. Second choice on the first Saturday in May. Millions up in smoke.
You’re gonna bet this horse AGAIN?
It was theater of the absurd, like Sam Beckett’s old play about two nincompoops standing by a tree, endlessly expecting a guy who never comes.
In deep stretch Saturday, a shaft of daylight miraculously opened on the rail and Planet Horseapple stopped waiting for Godot. Union Rags had won the Belmont. The One was No. 1.
For now, anyway.
Union Rags will likely rest until July and return, redeemed, in the Haskell or the Jim Dandy. He won’t scare anyone away. His winning time Saturday was 2:30.42. To call that time “pedestrian” is an insult to walking. On crutches even.
(By comparison, Secretariat blistered the Belmont in 2:24 and won by 31 lengths. The span of dirt created by clocking 2:24 vs. 2:30, ironically, is about 31 lengths. Watch the video above.)
But the wait is finally over. Godot, though frightfully slow, claimed a minority share of the Triple Crown. Bully for him.
Let’s see what he’s got for an encore.
About Mark Coomes: Contributing blogger Mark Coomes covered sports from 1988 to 2000 for The Courier-Journal, USA Today, Florida Today and The Monroe News Star.