LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jamie Wyeth stood off to the side of the grassy plot outside Barn 42, hard by Longfield Avenue, silently sketching the crowd watching the colt his wife owns taking a bath. If one scene could describe the Kentucky Derby experience, that would be it.
"It's amazing interest,'' Jamie said. "It sure is a distance from my studio and my world.''
The Wyeths had just been trackside at Churchill Downs Wednesday morning watching Union Rags take one of his final morning gallops before Saturday's Kentucky Derby. The morning was hot and promising to get hotter, a preview of the coming days, including Derby Day.
Phyllis Wyeth spent a few minutes with Union Rags' jockey, Julien Leparoux. Was she giving him instructions after his shaky performance in the Florida Derby?
"I was just telling him if we're lucky enough to make it, he can bring his bride-to-be to the winner's circle so I can meet her,'' she said.
It was 6 months ago when Union Rags left Churchill, a neck shy of a perfect 2-year-old season. That was the first Saturday in November. This will be the first Saturday in May.
Is Union Rags better now than he was then? Probably, and he will have to be to win this race, a Derby with more quality than any in recent memory.
If the race is won on looks, it is over. Union Rags wins easily.
Two professional clockers loved his final workout on Saturday, not necessarily how fast he ran, but how he ran fast, the way he moved, how effortless it all seemed, how much there still appeared to be in the tank when it was done.
Mike Welsch, of drf.com, said that Union Rags was "putting on quite a show.'' He called it a "brilliant workout'' and said that, "Union Rags gives the impression that he is coming up to his best race yet.''
Gary Young, a private clocker/consultant, is considered one of the sharpest workout observers in the business. He loved the workout.
"If he runs to that workout, he wins the race,'' Young said. "I am convinced this horse is going to win the race…If I get 4- or 5-1, I'm going. For me to do that in a 20-horse field…''
Neither trainer Michael Matz nor assistant trainer Peter Brette would make any predictions of victory, but their confidence level is high.
"We're where we want to be,'' Brette said.
The Florida Derby was a mess. Leparoux rode tentatively. It took forever for Union Rags to get a clear run and, once he did, several hundred yards more for the colt to finally catch his best stride. He was third at the wire, a winner 50 yards past the wire.
"It was frustrating,'' Brette said. "And it still is today. That day, I watched it twice and then refused to watch it. Now, I've gone back and watched it a couple of times and I think he ran a really, really good race.''
The concern was that Union Rags did not have that instant acceleration he has had in every other race. Brette thinks it was just so difficult to make up ground that day that it was almost impossible for any horse, even Union Rags, to look good under that circumstance.
"If it had been another half furlong, he would have won and everybody would have said absolutely what a genius of a horse he was,'' Brette said. "That door is closed. This one's opened.''
Anything that happens this week is magnified. So when Union Rags came out with a tongue tie Tuesday morning and didn't look all that comfortable, there was some concern.
"He plays with his tongue a lot,'' Brette said. "He didn't really like [the tongue tie]. He was grinding his teeth a little bit.''
That was a 1-day experiment.
"We were just messing around,'' Matz said. "One day and out.''
Wednesday, Union Rags looked smooth and eager during his gallop, the tongue tie long gone.
After the Florida Derby, Matz did not immediately say anything to his rider. Leparoux, he said, was doing all the talking /explaining.
"And it wasn't too polite, either,'' Matz said. "It's always easy to be critical. I've never ridden a race in my life so who am I to say he should have done this.''
Matz was not happy. He is just too polite to say it.
"For me to beat him up, what good would that do?'' Matz said.
Union Rags was a target in the Florida Derby. That will not be an issue Saturday as every rider will just be trying to find a clear path home.
" The key to the race every year is the first turn,'' Leparoux said.
Get position and hope your horse is good enough.
"Twenty horses and those 20 guys riding down on the first turn, that scares me to be quite honest with you,'' Matz saiid. "I think a lot of these races are won and lost on that first turn.''
Does the trainer expect to win?
"I'd like to,'' Matz said. "I can't say I'm expecting to win, but I'm here not to lose, that's for sure.''
Expecting to win the Derby is an unrealistic notion. Too much can go wrong, even if you have the best horse. But having the best horse or at least one of them is a very good place to start. Union Rags is that. If he is "the'' best will be determined Saturday. n
Contact Dick Jerardi at email@example.com