LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It was shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday, barely 12 hours after a Kentucky Derby that had been six months in the planning went very wrong in less than a second.
Michael Matz was walking a horse named Welcome Dance around the Barn 42 shedrow, passing a sedate Union Rags, peering out from his stall.
As he rounded the corner, Matz called back over his shoulder: "We did everything we wanted except the last two minutes, and that was the part we couldn't help."
In horse racing, you can be prepared, organized, and make rational decisions. Then, they run a race, animals get in unfamiliar circumstances, and all that training becomes irrelevant.
Union Rags was not the only horse that found trouble Saturday at Churchill Downs. The big colt with all the Pennsylvania connections just found it earlier than the others.
The bottom line was that Union Rags finished seventh, beaten by 71/2 lengths by Derby winner I'll Have Another.
Union Rags' race was over when he broke poorly and was squeezed between horses. Instead of getting position, Union Rags was 20 lengths behind midway through the race.
Julien Leparoux has ridden Union Rags in his last three races. It is almost certain he won't be riding him anymore. Matz, the colt's trainer, did not say those exact words, but he didn't have to.
"Yes, he didn't break good, but he made no initiative to run him up into that spot where he's sixth, seventh, or eighth," Matz said.
Matz's inclination is to pass the May 19 Preakness and wait for the Belmont Stakes in five weeks. Union Rags left Kentucky by van Sunday evening on his way to Matz's home base at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Matz planned to be there Monday morning to greet his stable star.
You could compare what happened to Union Rags to what happened to Point Given, Curlin, and Lookin' At Lucky in the Derby. All were beaten by significant margins in the Derby after troubled trips and came right back to win the Preakness. And Pimlico is only an hour from Fair Hill. No final decisions have to be made yet.
I'll Have Another was a solid winner who got a dream trip and took advantage of it. Second-place Bodemeister ran gallantly in defeat. But the time for the mile and a quarter on a surface that was very fast and yielded a seven-furlong track record was just 2 minutes, 1.83 seconds, equating to a Beyer speed figure of 101, the second slowest Derby Beyer of the last two decades.
If Union Rags had just improved three lengths or so over his Florida performances, he would have been right there at the finish. This is a pretty consistent group of 3-year-olds but not terribly fast.
If Union Rags has an outside post and gets the trip I'll Have Another got, maybe it's a different deal.
"The last two races, he didn't get a chance to run at all," Matz said. "The horse never got in stride."
In fact, Union Rags' last two races totaled 19 furlongs. He might have been able to stride out for four of those furlongs.
"It was a disaster," Matz said.
Leparoux said he heard something "pop" at the three-eighths pole. The horse was examined with no issues.
"We jogged him [Saturday] night, and I didn't see anything," Matz said. "I don't know if [Leparoux] was just covering his rear end."
In another part of the Churchill Downs backstretch, the victors were celebrating, planning a departure of their own for Maryland. I'll Have Another will be going straight to Pimlico on Monday.
Matz and his crew will be attending to their 68 horses at Fair Hill, including 22 2-year-olds, maybe even one that can get them back to the Derby, while planning their next move with Union Rags.
Body found. The discovery of a man's body Sunday in the stable area of Churchill Downs was being investigated as a homicide, but there appears to be no connection to the racetrack or the Kentucky Derby, police said.
A police spokeswoman said they are trying to determine the man's identity and how it happened.
Churchill Downs security called police at 4:50 a.m., police said. The body was found at the back of a barn occupied by Louisville trainer Angel Montano Sr. Montano did not have a horse running Saturday either in the undercard or the Derby. Montano could not be reached for comment.
About 200 people live at Churchill Downs at any given time - either in dormitories on the edge of the property or in small apartments above some of the barns.
The body was removed by stretcher from the barn at 9:50 a.m. Police said an autopsy was tentatively scheduled for Monday.