Saturday, March 3, 2012

Union Rags: Another Matz Superstar

With some paragraphs drawn from Derby Hopeful: Union Rags

The sun shone down on the crowd gathered at Churchill Downs as fans awaited the next race, the Breeders’ Cup Mile (GI). Regally Ready had just flashed across the finish line en route to the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (GII) and many people milled around the winner's circle following the race. Among those people was Michael Matz, whose brilliant juvenile colt, Union Rags, would run later that day in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI).

Meanwhile, I stood nearby with my family. I caught sight of Matz, who had been one of my favorite trainers since 2006, when he had trained the ill-fated Barbaro to a brilliant Kentucky Derby (GI) victory. Not only do I respect him for his brilliance at training, but I admire him for the talent he displayed in his Hall of Fame equestrian career and the courage and compassion he showed in saving the lives of four children after a plane crash in 1989.

Photo by Mary Cage
I clutched my program and a Sharpie and walked toward Michael Matz, asking him for his autograph. Very graciously, he smiled and signed beside Union Rags’ name in my program. Before parting ways, I wished him luck.

Of course, Union Rags fell just a head short to Hansen later that day in the Juvenile, drifting out in the stretch while closing. Though Hansen was presented the Eclipse Award for Champion Two-Year-Old Male, many – including me – felt that Union Rags was the most talented juvenile of 2011.

The colt debuted at Delaware Park last July as one of seven first-time starters in the nine-horse field. Sent off at nearly 8-1, Phyllis Wyeth’s colt settled in seventh as the horses began their run down the backstretch in the five-furlong maiden special weight. Jockey Julian Pimentel asked the two-year-old to make his run around the far turn and Union Rags responded eagerly, making an impressive move as the juveniles grew closer to the homestretch. His powerful stride ate up ground as Pimentel urged the colt forward and with an imposing turn of foot, Union Rags swept past Jake N Elwood near the furlong pole to win by 1 ¾ lengths in a final time of 58.25. The final eighth of a mile was run in 12.14 seconds.

After his excellent debut, his connections pointed Union Rags to the Three Chimneys Saratoga Special Stakes (GII) at the renowned Saratoga Race Course. Over a very sloppy track, Union Rags broke from the rail and raced alongside three other horses as the juveniles galloped along the backstretch. Ridden by Javier Castellano for the first time, the bay colt edged away with the favorite, Stat, as the two-year-olds entered the turn. The two ran neck and neck until the field reached the top of the stretch. Then Union Rags accelerated over the sealed track and drew away under Castellano despite drifting out badly in deep stretch. He crossed the wire 7 ¼ lengths ahead of the rest of the field, immediately appearing on plenty of watch lists, including mine.

To solidify his position as the leading two-year-old colt in the nation, Union Rags made his final start before the Breeders’ Cup in the esteemed Champagne Stakes (GI) at Belmont Park. As the juvenile colts galloped down the backstretch in the one-turn mile, Union Rags settled in mid-pack and was forced to take up slightly when he came in contact with Takes the Gold. He recovered quickly, quickening as the horses entered the final half-mile. Castellano guided the talented colt through traffic on the far turn, nearly taking the path along the rail until an opening appeared and the pair aimed for the lead on the outside. With his beautiful stride carrying him over fast track, Union Rags effortlessly opened up on the field and swept across the finish line with 5 ¼ lengths separating him and the others.

Photo by Mary Cage
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile seemed like his for the taking, but Hansen kept Union Rags from wearing the blanket of flowers in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle. Breaking from post ten in a thirteen-horse field, Union Rags broke smoothly and made his way to the middle of the pack. Due to his post position, the colt was forced to race very wide throughout the race. Castellano asked him for more speed as the two-year-old colts swept into the final turn and Union Rags responded, going widest of all. At the top of the stretch, it seemed as if he could catch the front-running Hansen, but he drifted out in the homestretch and finished a head behind Hansen before galloping out ahead of the winner.

Union Rags finished second in Eclipse Award voting for Champion Two-Year-Old Male, but was made the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He solidified that title on February 26 in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) at Gulfstream Park. Though the race had lost much luster after the scratch of the Holy Bull Stakes (GIII) winner, Algorithms, it also featured blossoming horses like the stakes-placed Casual Trick, the clear winner of two races at Calder in Csaba, the extremely impressive two-time winner in just as many starts in Discreet Dancer, the multiple stakes-winning Fort Loudon, the hard-knocking Neck ‘n Neck, and the promising News Pending. After breaking cleanly from the gate, Union Rags settled off the pace and though he was challenged at the end of the clubhouse turn by News Pending, he continued to rate under Julien Leparoux – who was riding him for the first time. Around the far turn, his long, powerful strides carried him to the lead, which would flourish into an effortless four-length victory in which the whip never touched him.

Of course, one of the major concerns revolving a Derby contender is the horse’s ability to stretch out. Though his pedigree does not scream distance, it does not restrict him to races under a mile and one-quarter, either.

His late sire, Dixie Union, was never considered much of a distance horse. Most of his victories came at a sprinting distance, though he won the nine-furlong Haskell Invitational Handicap (GI). However, the one time he attempted ten furlongs was in the 2000 Travers Stakes (GI), in which he did not rally strongly enough and finished fourth. Dixie Chatter, his multiple grade one-winning son, never won beyond a mile and one-sixteenth and Dixie Union’s brilliant grade one-winning daughter, Hot Dixie Chick, was never victorious at a distance longer than seven furlongs.

However, some Dixie Union offspring have shown affinity for distance. For instance, four of Grasshopper’s five wins came at one mile or farther and he lost to the Kentucky Derby-winning Street Sense by just a half-length in the ten-furlong Travers. Dixie Union also sired Gone Astray, a two-time winner at nine furlongs. In fact, those two nine-furlong wins by Gone Astray came in graded stakes races in which the horse looked capable of going an extra furlong.

Union Rags’ dam, Tempo, is by the influential sire, Gone West, a son of Mr. Prospector who won three graded stakes races at one mile or longer. He also sired many talented distance horses, such as Pacific Classic (GI, 10 furlongs)-winning Came Home, Belmont Stakes (GI, 12 furlongs)-winning Commendable, Breeders’ Cup Turf (GI, 12 furlongs)-winning Johar, and Pattison Canadian International Stakes (GI, 12 furlongs)- and Northern Dancer Turf Stakes (GI, 12 furlongs)-winning Marsh Side. In addition, he is the sire of Elusive Quality, sire of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (GI)-winning Smarty Jones.

Tempo’s grandsire is Nijinsky II, winner of the 1970 English Triple Crown who sired many distance horses, including the winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby and the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI, 10F) in Ferdinand, the winner of the 1983 Prix du Jockey Club (GI, 10.5F) and International Stakes (GI, 10.5F) in Caerleon, and the winner of the ten-furlong Canadian Maturity Stakes and Seagram Cup Handicap, the Rothmans Ltd. International Stakes (GI, 12F), the Early Times Manhattan Handicap (GII, 10F), the Arlington Handicap (GII, 10F), and the Turf Classic Invitational Stakes (GI, 12F) in Sky Classic.

Tempo has also produced the stakes-placed Geefour, a full brother to Union Rags. Tempo is a half-sister to the multiple graded stakes-placed Dancing Devlette – who was capable of winning at nine furlongs – and the multiple ungraded stakes-winning and graded stakes-placed Marry Me Do – who was also successful at nine furlongs. Through Tempo, Union Rags hails from female family number thirteen, the same family that produced the winner of the 1977 Triple Crown, Seattle Slew.

Though Union Rags’ pedigree may give one reason to doubt his ability to get the Derby distance, the colt has undeniable heart and brilliance. His long, authoritative stride shows that Union Rags could likely handle more ground, as does the way he effortlessly pulls away from fields.

You can always find at least one fault in a Derby contender. Union Rags has his own share of them, most notably the room for doubt in his pedigree as far as stamina is concerned. However, he has arguably been the most impressive horse on the Kentucky Derby trail yet this year. Racings fans have every right to be excited about him. Michael Matz has already had a horse in his stable that captured the hearts of racing fans; who's to say he can't have another one?

Union Rags
Photo: Terri Cage
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