Chadds Ford Stable's homebred Union Rags returned to action with a devastating display in Sunday's Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, stating his case to rank as the top Kentucky Derby hopeful. With his leading rival Algorithms scratched to due to injury Sunday morning, the Michael Matz trainee drew off with authority under confident handling by Julien Leparoux. Union Rags now looms as the horse to beat in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 31, for Matz will take the same path to Churchill Downs that he took with his 2006 Derby legend, Barbaro.
Leparoux took to his Twitter page to hail the conqueror: "WOW!!!!! That was amazing."
Across the country in Southern California, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert tweeted his admiration in a similar vein, "Union Rags, wow."
Union Rags was rebounding from his only loss, a wide-trip second in the November 5 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The upset winner Hansen, who was voted champion two-year-old for that hard-fought head victory, came back in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, only to suffer a five-length beating by Algorithms. Also losing in his reappearance was Breeders' Cup Juvenile third Creative Cause, who finished third in last Sunday's Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita.
But Union Rags bucked that trend on Sunday, in spectacular fashion. Matz afterward said that a trainer can never be certain that he has a horse ready for such a return.
"You never know after a four-month rest," Matz said. "Do you have the horse fit enough? Did you do this? Did you do that? You always go through 51 questions. I guess we did it right this time."
Leparoux picked up the mount when the colt's former rider Javier Castellano sided with Algorithms, the 8-5 morning-line favorite. That decision proved unfortunate when the Todd Pletcher colt popped a splint, forcing his withdrawal.
Yet Union Rags still did not go off as the favorite, but as the 6-5 second choice. The public bet Discreet Dancer, Pletcher's other entrant, down to 4-5 in his stakes debut, and first try around two turns. Discreet Dancer went to the early lead, but soon faced pressure from News Pending, who was lapped onto him through fractions of :24 2/5 and :48 on the fast track. The leader then tried to inch away, only to have News Pending re-engage after six furlongs in 1:12.
Union Rags was well placed in an outside stalking spot, until Leparoux gave him the signal rounding the far turn. Inhaling Discreet Dancer and News Pending in short order, Union Rags surged to the front swinging into the stretch and put the race away in a few strides. He reached the mile mark in 1:36 1/5 and finished 1 1/16 miles in a sharp 1:42 3/5. Despite the short stretch run for races of this distance, Union Rags increased his margin to four lengths.
"I was hoping he would run a good race, but I was not expecting that," Leparoux said. "He's such an easy horse to ride and did everything so easily. I didn't hit him once. I just showed him the stick a couple times.
"I'm sure he was not 100 percent today, which means he should just get better," the rider added.
Matz is also forecasting improvement from Union Rags.
"I would sure hope so," Matz said. "I think anytime you have a race under your belt it gets you a little tighter. Julien said he didn't get tired and galloped out well."
News Pending kept on for best of the rest honors by 2 1/4 lengths. Discreet Dancer tired to third, just holding off Neck 'n Neck by a half-length.
"There were no real excuses," Pletcher said of Discreet Dancer. "We got the trip we wanted, and he just finished evenly."
Fort Loudon reported home fifth, trailed by Csaba, who never recovered from a bad stumble at the break, and Casual Trick.
Union Rags, who repaid his loyalists with $4.40, $3.20 and $2.10, is now a millionaire with $1,098,800 in the bank. The strapping bay colt sports a 5-4-1-0 record. After his Delaware Park maiden win in July, he turned in sensational romps in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and Grade 1 Champagne, but couldn't overcome substantial ground loss in the Breeders' Cup.
Now that Union Rags is bringing Matz back into the Derby spotlight, the trainer is constantly being asked how he stacks up with Barbaro.
"Well…Barbaro was an undefeated horse, and we had a lot of confidence in him, there was no doubt," Matz said. "If it wasn't for maybe two feet he'd be undefeated, also (but for a wide trip in the Juvenile).
"I think he's (Union Rags) a real good horse, he's a got a real good disposition and I certainly don't think there's any problem with distance with him."
Owner/breeder Phyllis Wyeth originally sold the Kentucky-bred for $145,000 as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale. Reconsidering and regretting that move, she bought him back, in the name of her Chadds Ford Stable, for $390,000 at Fasig-Tipton Florida last February.
"We were just out for a practice run," Wyeth said of the Fountain of Youth. "Can you believe that one? And we didn't want him to peak to soon. We were not expecting him to win -- and giving (five) pounds to Discreet Dancer."
The son of Dixie Union is out of the winning Gone West mare Tempo, making him a full brother to the stakes-placed Geefour. Union Rags is also a half-brother to the winning Tempo West, the dam of French stakes hero Vertiformer and stakes-placed War Pact.
With his second dam being Grade 2 queen Terpsichorist, Union Rags hails from the family of Grade 2 winner Satans Quick Chick and Grade 3 victress Pratella, the dam of multiple Grade 3-placed stakes scorer Angliana.
Terpsichorist is herself a full sister to English Group 2 hero Gorytus. They were produced by 1965 Irish champion juvenile filly *Glad Rags II, winner of the following year's One Thousand Guineas. Other Glad Rags descendants include classic-winning millionaire Colonial Affair, victor of the 1993 Belmont Stakes and the Grade 1 Whitney and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1994.