Owner/Breeder is Living the Dream with Florida Derby favorite
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Phyllis Wyeth had long-term expectations that proved to be short-lived several years ago when she turned over a newly purchased filly to trainer Michael Matz.
“I bought this one horse that I thought would be really good to add to my broodmare band. She was one of George Strawbridge’s horses that was in a sale,” Wyeth recalled during a phone conversation from her farm in Chadds Ford, PA.
“She ran last twice on him and I told Michael, ‘Let’s get rid of this horse.’ I felt so badly for him. I told him, ‘I don’t want to embarrass you. I promise I’ll get you a good horse.’ The next horse I gave him was Union Rags.”
Wyeth more than lived up to her promise to Matz, who will saddle 6-5 morning-line favorite Union Rags for Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park. Union Rags is everything Wyeth could have dreamed about when she bred her broodmare Tempo to Dixie Union, but if it weren’t for a very vivid dream of her homebred becoming a celebrated stakes winner, she might still owe Matz a good horse.
Wyeth, who usually keeps only the fillies among her homebred horses, sold Union Rags at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale for $145,000, only to be quickly overcome with regret.
“He was so gorgeous and his temperament was so wonderful,” the 71-year-old owner of Point Lookout Farm recalled. “He had such a great personality.”
Her regret over selling Union Rags manifested itself in a dream that convinced her to try to buy back her homebred colt at the 2011 Fasig-Tipton Florida Sale for 2-year-olds in training.
“I said ‘I don’t care, he’s coming back,’” Wyeth said. “I really did have that dream. I said, ‘How could I have sold him? That was a big mistake.”
Wyeth was able to bring Union Rags home, but it cost her $390,000 to reunite with her homebred colt. She was so convinced that big things were in store for him that she bought his half-sister Miss Pauline before Union Rags made his debut at Delaware Park last July.
“I had a feeling about Union Rags, and we needed a filly out of those bloodlines, so I claimed Union Rags’ half sister for $7,500,” said Wyeth, who claimed Miss Pauline out of a winning effort at Parx last April.
Wyeth’s high regard for Union Rags’ future was hardly based on the whim of a partial breeder. She has been around good horses for her whole life, being the daughter of the late James P. Mills and Alice Francis du Pont Mills, who founded Hickory Tree Farm and campaigned the likes of Gone West, Devil’s Bag and Believe It, among others.
“It’s like a dream,” said Wyeth, who was an accomplished point-to-point steeplechase rider before being involved in a car accident in 1962 that would ultimately restrict her to a wheelchair in 1971. “I know my mother and father are looking down.”
Wyeth, who worked for President John F. Kennedy during his tenures in the U.S. Senate and the White House, became heavily involved in steeplechase racing.
“I mostly just had jumpers. I had some really nice steeplechase horses. I owned a horse that was almost Steeplechase Horse of the Year, Leaping Frog, who lost the (1979) Colonial Cup by a half-length,” said Wyeth, whose favorite steeplechase campaigner posted 20 wins, 12 seconds and 21 thirds in 75 trips to post.
Wyeth also takes enormous pride in being among a group that accompanied trainer/rider Tommy Smith to Charles Town Races in a quest to purchase steeplechase prospects. Smith purchased a hopeless maiden on the flat for $2,000 on that trip, and Jay Trump went on to become an international star. Wyeth was on hand at Aintree when the three-time Maryland Hunt Cup winner captured the Grand National in 1965.
An experienced judge of horses and horseman, Wyeth had confidence when she bought back Union Rags that Matz was the right trainer to realize her dreams for the colt.
“I really like Michael. He always says, ‘The horse will tell you.’ He’s a man who listens to the horse,” she said. “He treats each horse as an individual.”
Wyeth was vacationing in Maine when Union Rags made somewhat of a surprising winning debut at Delaware Park last summer, considering that the ever-patient Matz doesn’t gear-up his young horses to win five-furlong sprints early in their 2-year-old seasons and considering the considerable size of her colt. However, she hasn’t missed any of his other races, including a stunning 7 ¼-length victory in the Saratoga Special (G2) in August.
“That race just blew me away because four horses went abreast and he was right up there. It was a muddy track, and they went :21 and :45. I couldn’t believe it and he just ran away from the field after those fractions,” Wyeth said. “It blew me away.”
Union Rags went on to capture the Champagne (G1) at Belmont by 5 ¼ lengths before losing by a head to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), in which he was forced to race extremely wide around the Churchill Downs oval.
Wyeth’s homebred made a spectacular 2012 debut with a dominating four-length victory in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26 to establish himself as the early-favorite for the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill on May 5.
Wyeth has attended the Kentucky Derby just once in her lifetime to watch her father’s Believe It finish third in 1978.
“He came around the worst year of all. He had Affirmed and Alydar, and he was third (in the Derby and Preakness),” Wyeth said. “It was very exciting and we were pleased that he did so well.”
Wyeth, who has funded and supported conservation programs for at-risk students in Maine and Pennsylvania, made her first visit to Gulfstream Park for the Fountain of Youth and hopes to revisit her dream during Saturday’s Florida Derby.
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