LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It was shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday, barely 12 hours after a Kentucky Derby that had been 6 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 2 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 7 1/2 lengths by Derby winner I'll Have Another.
Horse racing is a very subtle sport where absolutely nothing is as it seems. 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. "From 18th to be seventh, he still covered a lot of ground. I don't know what to say to [Leparoux]. I'm sure he tried.''
Matz' inclination is to pass the May 19 Preakness and wait for the Belmont Stakes in 5 weeks. Union Rags left Kentucky by van Sunday evening on his way to Matz's home base at the Fair Hill (Md.) Training Center. 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 7-furlong track record was just 2:01.83, equating to a Beyer speed figure of 101, the second slowest Derby Beyer of the last two decades.
If Union Rags had just improved 3 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 4 of those furlongs.
"It was a disaster,'' Matz said.
Leparoux said he heard something "pop'' at the three-eighths ole. 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.''
Union Rags was a brilliant 2-year-old, but not terribly fast by historical standards. Given his stride length and physique, he really looked like the kind of horse that would go forward as a 3-year-old and earn the kind of numbers that win the major races. His speed figures, however, have been frozen in place, the same as they were 6 months ago.
It is possible Union Rags is the teenage sensation whose peers have caught and passed him. It is also possible that the colt still has not had a chance to run his best race.
"I feel so bad for the horse and for Phyllis,'' Matz said. "You put all this time and money into it.''
Phyllis would be owner Phyllis Wyeth who had been waiting her whole life for a horse like Union Rags.
Matz and his assistant Peter Brette won the 2006 Derby with Barbaro. This was Wyeth's first and likely last chance.
"It's heartbreaking really,'' Brette said. "He seems to have come out of it fine and at least we get the chance to go again. That's why you enjoy winning so much because you lose most of the time.''
Not only did Union Rags miss the break, there was more trouble lurking during the running. And there was all the flying dirt that turned his blaze brown.
"It's the best 2 minutes in sports and we were naked after 10 seconds,'' Brette said.
Brette's 9-year-old son suggested Union Rags might win it next year until his father explained that a 3-year-old can't be a 3-year-old twice.
So, as they packed up the stable to head home (Brette for the first time since November), they had their thoughts and no trophy.
Union Rags was taken out of his stall to get a bath. Matz cleaned his legs gently and let him graze. It was quiet, almost eerily so after the months of buildup and the final frenzied days.
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 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.
The Kentucky Derby is so compelling because a horse only gets that one chance. There is really nothing like it in sports. Just imagine planning everything meticulously, leaving nothing to chance and then watching helplessly as the race goes nothing like you had imagined. It is the Derby and they will run it again in 2013.