It was the Monday following Florida Derby, the horse vans were standing on the road alongside Barn 5 at Palm Meadows training center, where the horses were being loaded for their trip up I-95.
Some, like Union Rags, would be headed to Keeneland, to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, the remainder for some of the many graded stakes being offered up in Lexington that time of the year.
Others would be headed directly to Churchill Downs, and still others back home, Elkton, Maryland, site of the Fair Hills training center where the colt currently is being prepared for the Belmont Stakes, June 9.
Matz hoped that he would be shipping to Long Island with a chance to make history. Instead, it will be redemption he’ll be seeking for a talented, long-striding colt that might be as unlucky as his teacher is frustrated.
At least, that was the sense one had on one end of Tuesday’s NTRA National Teleconference. “It’s very disappointing,” the trainer said of Union Rags' seventh place Derby finish. “I thought he could win the Triple Crown.”
After the Florida Derby, Matz appeared driven and focused, his smile not coming as easily as it usually had in the past. On Sunday, Union Rags was “frisky” as he was led into his paddock pen so that he could run around a little, be a horse, as they say.
“But [Monday] morning he was a handful,” as Sunday’s regimen was repeated. By the time I had arrived, Union Rags was back in his stall, taking nips at passersby, including the handler whose only crime was trying to provide the colt with a sweet-feed treat.
From that point forward, things went swimmingly, including one of the better workouts seen at Churchill Downs in the run-up to Derby. He was doing so well that many handicappers gave him a second chance, a big chance to win America’s Race.
“It’s very disappointing,” Matz admitted. “How many times do you get to have one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby? Everything went absolutely perfect until the last two minutes. I thought he could win the Triple Crown.”
For Matz, the Derby was agony from end to end. Not long after the race, he admitted that his horse had very little chance after the field raced beneath the twin spires for the first time.
It was the second consecutive race in which Union Rags never got a chance to prove himself, failing to win for a third time when the expectations were very high; as the heavy Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Florida Derby favorite, and again as the close second favorite in Louisville.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Matz explained further, the slightest edge in his voice, as if to underscore the word frustrating. “I thought he was sitting on a big race in his last two races. I just don’t think he had a chance to show his ability. He never really had a chance to run.”
To achieve this, Matz, after showing loyalty to Julien Leparoux who rode him in those two races, finally made a switch, choosing John Velazquez, who will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame during the Saratoga race meet this August.
“Johnny is an experienced New York rider. Where [Union Rags] came from in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, he didn’t have a clear shot. We changed jockeys so that he could show his stride. We had to try something.
“If he breaks, he has that big stride and high cruising speed. He [should] be closer and not crammed up. The bigger turns will help him. I don’t think you’ve seen the real Union Rags in his last two races.”
Union Rags came out of the Derby with a couple of little scratches on his ankles but that’s no longer a concern. The horse couldn’t be any better than he is at the moment. “He’s doing great,” Matz said. “He might work [Thursday], and he’s worked one time already.”
That work at Fair Hill was not officially timed as it was more of a blowout down the stretch and the end of a gallop conducted at a two-minute per mile pace under assistant trainer Peter Brette. Matz is hoping Velazquez will be aboard for his final work in about another week’s time.
Matz apparently has not given too much thought to his role as possible spoiler. “If I don’t win I’d sure like to see a Triple Crown winner. But I thought my horse would be where [I’ll Have Another] is now.” And beating the Derby and Preakness champion?
“I wouldn’t be going in there if I didn’t think I could beat him. Whether a mile and a half is the place to start, who knows? I don’t really know I can beat [I’ll Have Another]. Then I didn’t think Union Rags would get in trouble again.
“He didn’t have a clear shot. Maybe it’s the horse. Maybe it was the jockey, maybe it’s the trainer’s fault.” But Matz doesn’t sound like a man willing to concede he doesn’t train the best horse of his generation. “It’s a long, tough year,” he said.