Phone photo by Frank Tufariello
Apparently, Pletcher learned more from the old ball coach and mentor, Hall of Famer Darrell Wayne Lukas, than just the X’s and O’s of running of Division 1 Thoroughbred racing operation.
Had Pletcher, now in New York to saddle his own #1 seed, Gemologist, in Saturday’s Resorts World Casino Wood Memorial wanted to, he could have paid homage to the Wildcats of the Commonwealth by rating Union Rags the top overall Kentucky Derby seed.
If he had the chance to see Union Rags inside barn 7 at the Palm Meadows training center on Monday morning, surely he would have considered doing so, loyalty to Gemologist and WinStar Farm notwithstanding.
“He was really tough early this morning when we got him out [into a paddock pen],” said trainer Michael Matz.
Horses love to get outside, romp around a bit, graze a little, just be a horse, doing what horses do. And this is a guy who loves to do what they were all born to do; run, something he never got a chance to do two days earlier in his final appearance before American racing’s biggest game and Kentucky Derby title.
This was the second straight morning that Union Rags displayed this kind of demeanor. On Sunday morning, the colt was “frisky,” according to Matz; “really tough” the following day.
Throughout our 40-minute visit, his ears were busy as he took in the sights and sounds outside his stall, but mostly the ears were up. From what we could see, his legs were pristine, his eyes bright, as he took a turn at leading the Victory Farm whinny chorus.
His manner made it difficult, if not impossible, to believe he had been in a horse race not 36 hours earlier.
This is a happy individual, one who can be forgiven his early a.m. hissy fits. He is engaged at all times, more than happy to play a little cat and mouse with a stable-hand who was showing the colt plenty of respect while trying to lay alfalfa on the ground inside the stall.
Insead of some equine coronation, the Florida Derby turned out to be a coming out party for the winning Take Charge Indy, a rebirth for his trainer, Patrick Byrne, and redemption for his partner, Calvin Borel, who received little early support from South Florida’s top horsemen, hit the road to Oaklawn Park, then returned to steal Gulfstream’s biggest prize.
“It was a learning experience for Union Rags and hopefully Julien, too,” said Matz. “Julien has to know that there’s a target on his back.
“Javier [on El Padrino] was race-riding and that’s fine. But once he got himself in that position, Javier was more interested in beating Union Rags than the other horses.
“Julien has to be aware of where he is at all times,” Matz continued. “The good thing about it is he will put himself in a better position where he won’t let that happen again.”
Trainer Mike Harrington, who will saddle Creative Cause, the #1 seed in the West Regional, a.k.a. Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, pretty much saw the Florida Derby the same way.
“[Union Rags] ran a good race,” Harrington said. “I don’t think his people need to be too concerned. It’s just a stepping stone and all he had to do was get a lot out of the race. [Take Charge Indy] got trip, [Union Rags] didn’t.
“That’s just like the Derby; with twenty horses you’ve got to get the trip.”
Creative Cause, the presumed Santa Anita Derby favorite, will race Saturday without blinkers. “The last time [San Felipe] he got to wandering around, so maybe the blinkers off may help him. I certainly don’t want to wait until the Kentucky Derby to find out.”
Ramon Dominguez, who separated his collarbone on the last day of the Aqueduct winter meet, will return to the saddle Friday and will ride Alpha in the Wood. He feels confident that Alpha’s earlier gate issues are behind him.
“He was an angel in the gate last time, and the [Aqueduct] gate crew has been working with him a lot. They tell me he won’t be a problem,” Dominguez said. “The Derby might be different, but with 20 horses it’s the same [concern] for everybody.
As for Union Rags, Matz needs to keep him as happy as he was Monday and squeeze him just right as Derby day approaches.
John Calipari got his first championship later that night. Matz will be looking for his second title a month from now. For Matz, Leparoux and the colt, that day can’t get here fast enough.