- Road to the Kentucky Derby
- Racing & Wagering
Union Rags fires bullet at Fair Hill; Ravelo's Boy zips at Calder
Union Rags impressed new rider Johnny Velazquez with a blistering five-furlong move in a bullet :59 at Fair Hill on Sunday.
Velazquez made the trek down to Maryland to get acquainted with the Michael Matz colt, who posted the fastest of six works at the distance on the fast main track -- by three full seconds.
"I'm glad Johnny made the effort to come down and sit on him," Matz said. "Johnny seemed to like him and he seemed to do that easy enough."
"Excellent, man -- very easy," Velazquez enthused after returning to Belmont Park. "It was a little faster than we had planned, but it was very easy. Very impressive. Hopefully, we can keep him like that for Saturday!"
Union Rags, a smashing winner of last fall's Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont, was most recently a rough-trip seventh in the Kentucky Derby. In the wake of those woes, connections opted to make a rider switch from Leparoux to Velazquez.
One day before boarding a van to Belmont Park where he will try to play the part of the most improbable Triple Crown spoiler, Ravelo's Boy worked six furlongs in 1:11 4/5 over Calder's fast track Sunday morning.
"It was very, very good," Azpurua said. "He's 100 percent sound and he's behaving himself. Every single week he's been doing better and better. That's why we are taking a chance and running in the Belmont Stakes.
"If I didn't think my horse was going to run a good race, I wouldn't be sending him," trainer Manny Azpurua, who began his career in his native Venezuela in 1948, said of the colt. "I can tell that he has never been better. Every day he shows me that he is getting better, and he continues to mature."
Born in 1929, Azpurua comes from a prominent South American racing family. His father was a leading owner in Venezuela, a founder of the Venezuelan Jockey Club, and director of El Paraiso Racetrack in Caracas. At the age of 18, the younger Azpurua came to the United States where he attended the now-shuttered Manlius Military Academy in New York.
"That was tough," Azpurua said of his time in the academy. "It was hard, hard work. But when my father passed away suddenly back home, I needed to go back to my country. That is when I began to train horses. I won over 3,000 races in Venezuela; won all the biggest races in my country like the Simon Bolivar and the Presidente de la Republica."
After three decades of success in Venezuela and a 1974 Kentucky Derby flirtation with brother Leo Azpurua's Set n' Go, who finished 16th to Cannonade, Azpurua returned to the United States in the late 1970s, and in 1980 he took up residence at Calder, where he has remained ever since.
"Every day in this game, you learn something new," Azpurua said. "Look at me, I've been training horses over 60 years, and I tell you right now, every day this game has a new lesson for me. I think that's why people that get involved in racing never leave. Every day, there is something new to learn. And if you listen, and pay attention, it is the horses that are the teachers."
Having already made 13 starts, Ravelo's Boy has the most race-day experience of the expected Belmont Stakes starters. But after grabbing a quarter at the start of the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, Azpurua eased back on the colt, and Ravelo's Boy hasn't run since that March 10 race, a three-month layoff that is rare by Azpurua's training standards.
"Coming out of the gate, when he made his first jump, he got crowded and his front came up a little short. That caused his back leg to reach up and grab the right front. I thought he showed heart that day to run after that. But when he came back, I knew that he would need some time off. And that time off has been very good for him. It has allowed him to mature."
And it is that maturity, that perceived improvement in ability and attitude, which leads Azpurua to believe his horse will perform to such lofty expectations on Saturday. And while Azpurua stops shorts of predicting a shocking and history-thwarting upset in the Belmont, the trainer steadfastly believes his horse will be competitive come race day.
"When we get to New York, they won't know me, or my horse," the 83-year-old conditioner said. "All the focus is on the other horse (I'll Have Another), as it should be. But I believe my horse is going up there to run a good race. And at the end, I believe we will get noticed."
Azpurua will board a plane bound for New York Monday afternoon to oversee the arrival of Ravelo's Boy on Tuesday morning.
Alex Solis has the Belmont mount.