THE UNION RAGS team had dreams of more than the Kentucky Derby. They really thought they might have a horse that could win the Triple Crown.
That dream went away when the stall doors opened for Saturday’s Derby. Instead of, say, getting position and making it into an eight-horse race, with more than half the field behind him, Union Rags, 18th early, was in a 20-horse race and eventually finished seventh.
The team of owner Phyllis Wyeth, trainer Michael Matz and Wyeth adviser Russell Jones met Tuesday at Matz’ Fair Hill, Md., barn and decided that since the Triple Crown is out, the horse could really use more time between races. So they will skip the May 19 Preakness and get Union Rags ready for the June 9 Belmont Stakes.
Top-class horses almost never run races 2 weeks apart, except during the Triple Crown. It was decided that Union Rags could not only use the extra time, but the wide, sweeping turns at Belmont Park would mesh with the colt’s long, powerful strides.
Matz said they will wait until after the Preakness to decide on a jockey for the Belmont. The trainer would not say it, but there is almost no way Julien Leparoux will be that rider. Depending on who is available, it would make sense to get a rider such as John Velazquez or Ramon Dominguez, two jockeys who are very familiar with Belmont Park. Agents for most of the top riders have called seeking the mount for future races.
“I hope we haven’t ruined his will to win,” Wyeth said.
When you have a horse that is caught in traffic in consecutive races and unable to stride out, the horse can get discouraged. Time will tell on Union Rags.
The big horse was back on the track Wednesday, jogging.
“He was out in the paddock Tuesday, he’s really good,” Matz said.
Matz called the Derby trip a “disaster.” And he was right. The horse was so far back and took so much dirt from the horses in front of him that his eyes looked like slits by the time the race was over. If there was traffic to be found, Union Rags found it. He was running well at the finish, but was never really in the race.
Matz figures that is now three seven-figure purse races where the horse had bad racing luck. Might have been able to handle the first two if Union Rags had won the Derby.
“I might have another chance [at the Derby],” Matz said. “The horse, no and whether Phyllis has another horse, it could happen, but most likely probably won’t.”
Matz got a nice pick-me-up from New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork, a big horse racing fan.
“He left me a message the other day and said I still think he’s the best 3-year-old out there,” Matz said. “I know what it’s like being favored in two Super Bowls and not winning. It was a nice message.”
The Derby anymore has become about luck, good and bad. As long as they have 20 horses, that won’t change.
It is a long year. Nothing has been decided.
“That’s what we got to hope for,” Matz said.
The Derby, however, has been spoken for. And the Preakness will be run without the horse Matz really believed he would be bringing as the Derby winner. So, it is on to the Belmont Stakes and the summer racing season. n
Contact Dick Jerardi at firstname.lastname@example.org