Making his first start since losing to Hansen by a head in the Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5, Union Rags produced the most dominating Kentucky Derby (G1) prep of the season thus far while easily dominating a field that was reduced to seven by the early-morning scratch of morning-line favorite Algorithms.
“You never know after a four-month rest – Do you have the horse fit enough? Did you do this? Did you do that? You always go through 51 questions,” Matz said. “I guess we did it right this time.”
Union Rags also did everything right.
With the Todd-Pletcher-trained Algorithms knocked out of the 1 1/16-mile stakes with a popped splint in his right-front leg, his stablemate Discreet Dancer was sent to post as the 4-5 favorite ahead of 6-5 second choice Union Rags. Discreet Dancer, who was an impressive winner of his first two career starts at the current Gulfstream meeting, was sent right to the lead by jockey John Velazquez in his first start around two turns. Union Rags broke alertly to track the pacesetter on the first turn while being passed on the outside by longshot News Pending, who quickly pulled alongside Discreet Dancer on the backstretch.
After closely stalking the pace, Union Rags made a three-wide move leaving the backstretch and swept to the lead on the turn without encouragement from Leparoux. After putting away a tiring Discreet Dancer, who set comfortable fractions of :24.50, :48.11 and 1:12, the Champagne (G1) winner extended his lead to the finish line without pressure from his jockey.
‘“I was hoping he would run a good race, but I was not expecting that. He’s such an easy horse to ride and did everything so easily. I didn’t hit him once. I just showed him the stick a couple times,” said Leparoux, who gained the mount aboard Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth when Javier Castellano opted to ride Algorithms. “I’m sure he was not 100 percent today, which means he should just get better.”
Union Rags ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.68 to earn $240,000 for owner/breeder Phyllis Wyeth, who was impressed with her colt’s first step on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
“We were just out for a practice run. Can you believe that one? And we didn’t want him to peak to soon,” said Wyeth, who handled White House mail during the John F. Kennedy Presidency. “We were not expecting him to win – and giving (five) pounds to Discreet Dancer.”
Discreet Dancer faded to third, 2 ¼ lengths behind runner-up News Pending, a 27-1 longshot ridden by Kent Desormeaux.
“There were no real excuses,” Pletcher said. “We got the trip we wanted and he just finished evenly.”
Matz said that Union Rags is scheduled to make a final Kentucky Derby prep in the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park on March 31. The four-time Olympian on the U.S. Equestrian team said he expects his colt to improve off his seasonal debut.
“I would sure hope so. I think anytime you have a race under your belt it gets you a little tighter. Julien said he didn’t get tired and galloped out well,” said Matz, who praised his assistant trainer, Peter Brett, for his job aboard Union Rags during recent workouts. “He’s a big help to me because he’s on the horse and it is an extra tool to use in the training.”
Brett was also instrumental in the development and success of Barbaro, who captured the Derby undefeated before tragically suffering catastrophic injuries in the Preakness that would claim his life
It’s inevitable that comparisons will be made between Barbaro and Union Rags on the Road to the Derby, but Matz isn’t going to draw any conclusions.
“Well…Barbaro was an undefeated horse and we had a lot of confidence in him, there was no doubt. If it wasn’t for maybe two feet he’d be undefeated, also,” said Matz, referring to Union Rags’ narrow loss following a wide and troubled trip in the Juvenile. “I think he’s (Union Rags) a real good horse, he’s a got a real good disposition and I certainly don’t think there’s any problem with distance with him.”
Sunday, he put some distance between himself and other 3-year-olds while establishing himself at the top of the list of Kentucky Derby hopefuls.”