By MICHAEL COMPTON
Union Rags’ reputation may have taken a hit when he lost last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill Downs by a nose to Hansen. On Sunday at Gulfstream Park, the mammoth son of Dixie Union left little doubt who is the leading 3-year-old in the country with a breathtaking performance in the 68th renewal of the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2).
Making his first start since the Breeders’ Cup, Union Rags easily dominated a field that was reduced to seven by the early-morning scratch of morning-line favorite Algorithms, who popped a splint in his right-front leg. Trained by Michael Matz, Union Rags is owned by Phyllis Weyth’s Chadds Ford Stable.
“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 in the middle of a crowded winner’s circle celebration. “I guess we did it right this time.”
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, under Julien Leparoux, broke alertly to track the pacesetter on the first turn but was then passed by long shot News Pending on the backstretch. The latter continued to press Discreet Dancer into the far turn.
After closely stalking the pace, Union Rags made a three-wide move leaving the backstretch and swept to the lead on the turn without the slightest bit of encouragement from Leparoux. After putting away a tiring Discreet Dancer, who set comfortable fractions of :24.50, :48.11 and 1:12, Union Rags disposed of that rival without a hint of a fight.
‘“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.“There were no real excuses,” Todd 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 got a real good disposition and I certainly don’t think there’s any problem with distance with him.”
Gulfstream Park Publicity contributed to this report.