HALLANDALE BEACH, FL - Chadds Ford Stable’s Union Rags will be a short-priced favorite facing eight rival 3-year-olds in the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) Saturday going 1 /8 miles at Gulfstream Park.
The Michael Matz-trained colt will be out to confirm his standing as the solid early favorite for the 138th Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs May 5.
A Kentucky homebred by Dixie Union, Union Rags was an imposing four-length winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) going 1 1/16 miles here on Feb. 26 in his first start since sustaining his only defeat when second by a head to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill on Nov. 5 with a wide trip and racing greenly through stretch.
Jockey Julien Leparoux was aboard Union Rags for the first time in the Fountain of Youth and retains the call for Matz, who guided the career of Barbaro in 2006 when the ill-fated colt raced undefeated through the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.
Prior to the Breeders’ Cup, Union Rags won all three of his starts beginning with his debut at Belmont Park on July 12, followed by a 7 ¼ lengths romp in the Saratoga Special (G2) in mid-August and then a commanding 5 ¼ lengths score in the Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont on Oct. 8 after overcoming traffic trouble in the stretch.
“I think he should take a step forward from the Fountain of Youth,” said Matz. “You’re never sure what to expect coming off of a four-month layoff, but it couldn’t have gone any better. I was very pleased. It didn’t look like he had to give everything he had. I would hope that having a race under his belt would help him for the Florida Derby.
“He had some unfortunate problems in the Breeders’ Cup, but I think it was an isolated incident. He’s more mature physically and mentally than he was as 2-year-old, and I think it showed in his last race. I asked Julien if there was anything we need to work on after the race and he said ‘not really. When I ask him to wait, he waits. When I ask him to go, he goes.’ ”
Union Rags has been installed as the 6-to-5 morning line favorite and will break from post position six.
Union Rags chief rival and second choice in the race is Let’s Go Stable’s El Padrino with jockey Javier Castellano to ride for trainer Todd Pletcher. The chestnut son of Pulpit won the Risen Star Stakes (G2) last out at Fair Grounds by a nose after an impressive allowance victory going 1 1/16 miles here on Jan. 29 in his first start since finishing a close-up third in the Remsen Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct in late November.
“Physically, he’s a big strong colt but has good acceleration and can be pretty tactical in his races,” said Pletcher. “He’s becoming more and more professional. His allowance race here was an impressive race for a young horse, sitting behind horses on the inside and having to wait for something to open and finishing up strongly against a horse that was kind of loose on the lead.
“Then, he went to Louisiana and showed he had some courage in a dogfight with a nice horse (Mark Valeski) and was able to put his nose down at the wire. It’s nice to know that he’s capable of sitting behind horses and taking some dirt when he’s down inside, and that when he gets in a situation that he needs to find more, he can come up with it.”
El Padrino was made second choice at 2-to-1 on the morning line and breaks from post position eight.
Next after the top two in the Florida Derby are Klaravich Stable and William H. Lawrence’s News Pending with jockey Rajiv Maragh getting aboard for the first time for trainer Dale Romans and Calvin Borel flying in for the mount on Chuck and Maribeth Sandford’s Take Charge Indy for trainer Pat Byrne.
News Pending finished second to Union Rags last out in the Fountain of Youth as a 27-to-1 longshot in his third start at the meet. The son of Harlan’s Holiday broke his maiden on turf here on Dec. 22 in his fifth career start and finished second in an ‘a other than’ allowance on grass on Feb. 5.
In a surprise late development, Romans also entered Zayat Stable’s maiden Z Camelot with jockey Joe Bravo named to ride. The son of Smart Strike finished 11th of 12 in his debut at Aqueduct in late November. Z Camelot has made three starts since then on turf at Gulfstream, finishing fourth twice and fifth last out on Feb. 23.
Take Charge Indy is a regally-bred son of A.P. Indy out of Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady and finished a very respectable fifth behind Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, beaten a little more than six lengths for it all in his fourth career start after finishing second in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (G3) in September and fourth in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland in early October.
Take Charge Indy made his 2012 season debut finishing a good second in the Jan. 29 allowance race won by El Padrino and was entered to make his second start in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) on Mar. 10, but scratched after drawing post position 10 to await the Florida Derby.
Completing the field for the Florida Derby are Stipa Racing Stable’s Reveron, Elvis Trujillo; A. Stephen Miles, Jr.’s Neck ‘n Neck, Edgar Prado; Jacks or Better Farm’s Fort Loudon, Luis Jurado; and ARS Racing Stable’s Bartolome, J.L. Castanon.
Reveron is a son of Songandaprayer based at Calder with trainer Agustin Bezara and won the first running of the Gulfstream Park Derby going 1 1/16 miles here on New Year’s Day and came back to finish third last out in the Sam Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 4.
Trained by Ian Wilkes, Neck ‘n Neck is a Kentucky homebred by Flower Alley and finished an even fourth behind Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth after a good try in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) when he finished fifth, but beaten only 2 ¾ lengths for it all with a wide trip.
Fort Loudon is a Florida homebred trained by Stanley Gold at Calder and was the star 2-year-old developed there last summer sweeping the three ‘open’ divisions of the Florida Stallion Stakes. The son of Awesome of Course earned a chance in the Breeders’ Cup and finished seventh behind Union Rags. In two starts this year here Fort Loudon finished fourth in the Holy Bull Stakes (G3) and fifth in the Fountain of Youth.
Bartolome is a son of Toccet trained by Calder-based Jose Garoffalo, who sends out the good filly Yara in the Gulfstream Park Oaks. Bartolome finished an even third last out behind Heavy Breathing in a 1 1/8 miles allowance race on Mar. 3 in his fourth career start. He finished third in the Foolish Pleasure Stakes at Calder in mid-September after a winning career debut.
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