BOYNTON BEACH, FL – When Phyllis Wyeth began to have second thoughts about selling a homebred yearling she had consigned to the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale, she sought out trainer Michael Matz.
“She asked me to look at the horse at Saratoga and if I had somebody to buy half of it, she’d like to keep it. I just didn’t have anybody at the time,” Matz recalled. “Now, I bet there are a lot of people who wished they bought half of him.”
The son of Dixie Union sold for $145,000, but Wyeth couldn’t forget about him. When her Kentucky-bred colt was consigned to the Fasig-Tipton Florida Sale at Palm Meadows Training Center last February, the Chadds Ford, Pa. resident couldn’t resist the urge to try to buy him back.
“Russell Jones stopped by my barn and told me, ‘Phyllis wants to buy the colt back,’ and he told me that she wanted me to train him,” said Matz, recalling the day last winter when Wyeth’s friend and bloodstock advisor paid him a visit before the 2-year-olds-in-training sale at Gulfstream’s satellite training facility in Boynton Beach.
Wyeth put up $390,000 to buy back the colt that she would name Union Rags – a name that now tops the list of candidates for the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park on March 31, as well as the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 5.
Union Rags was such quick learner and trained so well that the ever-patient Matz entered the large, long-striding 2-year-old to race at Delaware in July.
“We thought we would give him a race, because he was ready to go five furlongs. Usually, for me to have a horse win at five furlongs it’s unusual. I told (assistant) Peter (Brett), ‘He’s a big colt. Let’s give him a chance. Hopefully, if he comes running down the lane, even if he’s third or fourth, it’ll be worth more than three or four works.’ He just did it the right way.”
Union Rags did everything right in his next two starts, capturing the 6 ½-furlong Saratoga Special (G2) and the mile Champagne (G1), before getting beat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill Downs in his 2011 finale. He finished second behind Hansen in a photo finish after losing a lot of ground in an extremely wide trip.
“We’re talking this much from being undefeated or no,” said Matz, holding up his hands a few inches apart. ”Maybe he doesn’t know that he’s not undefeated. It was just an unfortunate thing to happen. I think that Javier (Castellano) was trying to win the best he could. He just got caught in a situation. Maybe the race will pan out someday where I’m the beneficiary. It probably did cost him the 2-year-old championship, but I think he sort of redeemed himself in his last race.”
Indeed, Union Rags made a show of the field in his 2012 debut in the $400,000 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream on Feb. 26, scoring by four lengths without much encouragement from jockey Julien Leparoux. The stunning triumph helped his trainer put his heartbreaking loss in the Juvenile into perspective.
“He ran a good race. Whether it was the horse’s fault or the jockey’s fault, it was just one of those things. The positive things are that he came out of the race good and got experience. It wasn’t like second in a $2 million race is bad,” Matz said. “It was hard for me to understand that little bit, being beat by a head, made for such a landslide vote the other way (for Hansen). I didn’t see that.”
Although Hansen won the Eclipse Award vote for the 2011 2-year-old title, Union Rags holds the edge over the Juvenile winner in most rankings for this year’s Derby.
Matz, who saddled 2006 Florida Derby winner Barbaro for a dominating Kentucky Derby victory before his undefeated colt suffered catastrophic and ultimately fatal injuries in the Preakness (G1), is ready for the media attention that is bound to surround Union Rags at Churchill Downs.
“I would rather the attention be that way than the other way. Before the (2006) Derby, I had enough attention the other way: ‘He’s doing this wrong; he’s doing that wrong and this wrong,’” said Matz, who was criticized for bringing Barbaro into the Derby off five weeks rest. “I’m a big boy. I can take it either way.”
As the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Florida Sale approaches (March 26), Matz can look back at the past year with a great deal of pride and just a touch of melancholy.
“It’s been a terrific year, other than losing the Lael horses,” said Matz, who was caught by surprise when Barbaro’s owners took horses away from him just around the time Union Rags made his debut last summer. “But, like my wife said, ‘Sometimes you have to wait for one door to close for another door to open.’ ”
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