BOYNTON BEACH, FL – Peter Brette is privileged to know what if feels like to sit on a Kentucky Derby (G1) winner, having served as the assistant trainer and exercise rider of the Michael Matz-trained Barbaro, the 2006 winner of the Run for the Roses.
While Union Rags looks to others like a legitimate early favorite for this year’s Kentucky Derby, the 46-year-old native of England has a more advantaged perspective from the back of the 6-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park.
“I remember saying to Michael when Barbaro was here, ‘The racetrack is starting to feel very small. It seems like I’ve gone two or three strides, he changes leads and goes around a bend, another two or three strides, he changes leads and goes around a bend.’ Barbaro did that; he made the track feel very small,” said Brette after training hours at Palm Meadows Training Center. “This horse is starting to do that now; he’s starting to make the racetrack seem small. I think that’s a very good sign.”
Other than their respective ground-devouring strides, there hasn’t been much common ground shared by Barbaro, the 2006 Florida Derby winner, and Union Rags. The most obvious difference is temperament.
“Union Rags is just a very, very strong 3-year-old, but he’s so kind. Galloping him, he’s not as intense as Barbaro to gallop. He’s very, very kind,” said Brette, who went to work for Matz only three weeks before Barbaro joined his stable. “He’s beautiful horse to gallop. He’s got a great personality, great disposition. He’s a very straightforward horse.”
Although his physical development in filling out his 17-hand frame is ongoing, Union Rags was a far quicker study in developing into a racehorse than Barbaro.
‘The penny only dropped with Barbaro after the Florida Derby. With this fellow, it’s dropped pretty quickly,” Brette said. “He’s very laidback, where as Barbaro wanted to get it done. He hated standing around. This horse would stand around all day long. He’s got such a good disposition.”
Brette, who rode and trained in Dubai during a 14-year stint before coming to the U.S., quickly found respect for his new boss, who was a member of the U.S. equestrian team at three Olympic Games before turning to training thoroughbreds.
“He’s a terrific horseman. To do what he’s done in two different disciplines is amazing,” Brette said. “There aren’t too many people who have done that. He’s a complete horseman.”
Likewise, Matz has developed a tremendous respect for Brette’s work ethic and opinion.
“He plays a big role. I was very lucky to get him. First of all, he’s a great horseman. Second of all, he’s a great rider. He’s a very calm quiet individual and hard working and very dependable,” Matz said. “The nice thing for me is that you can only see certain things when you’re on the ground. With Peter on the horse, it’s an advantage for me.”
While Brette and Matz experienced the biggest thrill in racing when Barbaro captured the Derby to remain undefeated, they also experienced a horrific moment two weeks later when their Derby winner suffered injuries in the Preakness that would eventually prove fatal after a courageous battle.
“We had one of the nicest 3-year-old that had come around in a long, long time. He was one of the soundest horses we had in the barn. I used to go to the races with the attitude that he can’t get beat. If he got beat, there was something wrong or we did something wrong,” Brette said. “There was never a time I took him to the races that I thought he’d get beat. At the Preakness, I thought he’d win and for that to happen was something that didn’t even occur to me. It was such a shock.
“It took a long time to get over him. I was in shock for a long time with him. It took the fun out of racing. But you get better and better and better, and running good horses helps you get over that.”
Union Rags raised the Matz stable’s hopes for returning to the Kentucky Derby with a thoroughly dominating four-length victory in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream in his 2012 debut.
I thought he’d win, but I wouldn’t have been too disappointed because we didn’t wind him up for the race. He really, really impressed me and he’s come back from the race in great form,” Brette said. “He’s getting stronger and stronger, which is what we wanted at this time. Hopefully, he’s going to get a nice test in the Florida Derby, and we’re expecting him to improve from the Florida Derby, too.”
Brette has marveled at Union Rags’ rapid physical development during his 3-year-old campaign thus far.
“He’s like a teenage boy who’s slowly turning into a man,” he said. “Hopefully, by the time we get him to the Derby, he’ll be that man that we wanted him to be.”