Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The Look of Eagles


HALLANDALE, FLA., February 28, 2012—Did we all see the Kentucky Derby’s future while watching the performance of Union Rags in his impressive sophomore debut Sunday in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes?

Sharp start for Union Rags (7) and Csaba (8) lucky to avoid injury
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Sharp start for Union Rags (7) and Csaba (8) lucky to avoid injury
If we did not, then, let’s assume for the moment that he’s the most gifted 3-year-old on this side of the Mississippi and all that may be left is determining which West Coast Derby prospect is willing to audition for the role of Sunday Silence.

A Baffert trainee to be named later, perhaps?

I promised that I wouldn’t get ahead of myself on this. Since arriving in the land o’ sunshine, I get this a lot: “So, who’s your Derby horse?” Not many accept my answer readily but I tell them the following:

I long since have stopped trying to be the first kid on my block to predict the Derby winner and that, if I knew, I wouldn’t utter a word until I could get a future book bet down. I might have taken a few flyers in Pool 1 for fun and, perhaps, a small windfall.

Either way, life will not change. Besides, the futures are really meant for people with a strong inside opinion who can bet enough to make a half-year’s pay should they be prescient enough to divine a Derby winner. But I digress.

The performance of Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth was a high class exhibition from start to finish. For openers, he entered the ring looking like your run of the mill 4-year-old. He had the creases of conditioning, a gleaming coat, controlled energy. He appeared pluperfectly prepared by trainer Michael Matz.

Then he went out on a surface that was somewhat tiring--probably a bit dried out, even after overnight rains, because of winds that gusted to 35 mph at times, variably from the east and northeast. But he ran to his looks.

Now it might be that the formerly undefeated Discreet Dancer has a future best served by one-turn races up to a mile. And runnerup News Pending, while stoutly bred, had yet to win on dirt in three starts. The four also-rans all had troubled starts. So we need to be a guarded here.
Union Rags in Winners' Circle still with running on his mind
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Union Rags in Winners' Circle still with running on his mind
The colt runs like a 4-year-old, too. If you need speed, he’ll give it to you, like on the first turn Sunday when Julien Leparoux, riding as if he broke him to saddle, asked the colt not to allow Discreet Dancer to establish an easy, uncontested lead. Then he waited for another cue.

When you ask Union Rags for something, he apparently gives it to you instantly. When Leparoux asked him on the second turn, he powered past the leaders effortlessly and with graceful acceleration. When he passes you, he doesn’t hesitate--he sets sail to the finish.

Had he been asked to run to the traditional finish line further down the stretch, the four length winning margin might have been doubled. Leparoux only waved his stick and never used it earnestly. His gallop out was strong; not run-off strong but deliberate and straight.
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo presents trophy to  Mrs. Wyeth, conversing with her jockey as trainer Michael Matz looks on
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo presents trophy to Mrs. Wyeth, conversing with her jockey as trainer Michael Matz looks on
Union Rags has a loyal following; at least he did on this day, greeted by whoops and shouts on his entrance into the winners’ circle. “You showed him who’s the boss,” one yelled, which was precisely right.

Perhaps the most impressive part of all is that he walked into the circle as if he owned it, flicking his ears and peering around, both. His eyes were bright; maybe that’s what the old-time show-horse people meant by “the look of eagles.”

He was heaving a bit as he posed for his close-up, as any horse that had just run a mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.68, with a final sixteenth in a sharp :6.40 He didn’t walk out of the ring as much as he danced his way back to the test barn.
Next stop Florida Derby
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Next stop Florida Derby
The sense was that this isn’t just any horse.

The word special is thrown around a lot these days by owners, trainers and jockeys but it often sounds like it’s more about creating mystique than offering an honest assessment. I don’t know if Union Rags is a special horse; it’s too early to tell.

But if he is one of the ones, he already looks the part.

Written by John Pricci

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