Union Rags returned with a spectacular effort befitting an early Kentucky Derby favorite, trouncing the competition in Sunday's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and the bay colt will bring a head of steam into his next appearance, the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 31.
Winner of the Grade 1 Champagne and Grade 2 Saratoga Special, Union Rags was the best two-year-old of 2011 but lost the championship following a head second in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile in which he traveled wide on both turns and ducked out in midstretch. Similar to any top juvenile, Union Rags needed to keep moving forward at three and the Michael Matz trainee came back better than ever on Sunday.
El Padrino went about his business in a much different fashion a day earlier, taking the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds by a nose after a prolonged stretch duel, but the developing colt confirmed his status as a major player on this year's trail. The Risen Star yielded another promising contender in Mark Valeski.
The scene shifts to New York this weekend for the Grade 3 Gotham at 1 1/16 miles over Aqueduct's inner track.
The Fountain of Youth took a major hit when morning-line favorite Algorithms was declared the morning of the race due to a popped splint in his right front leg. He was later diagnosed with a fracture that will sideline him through the Triple Crown.
Instead of fervently jumping on the Union Rags' bandwagon, the betting public outsmarted itself, making Algorithms' stablemate, Discreet Dancer, the 4-5 favorite at post time over the 6-5 Union Rags. The front-running colt proved woefully incapable of sustaining his speed at a two-turn distance, fading to third after establishing a soft pace.
Union Rags rated within a few lengths of the early leader and commenced his rally on the far turn, moving effortlessly toward the front while rounding the bend. He quickly put his rivals away upon reaching the stretch, striding clear while under no pressure from jockey Julien Leparoux, and widened his advantage to four lengths by the time he reached the finish line.
Visually, Union Rags was super impressive. He finished with great gusto in the 1 1/16-mile event, netting a 115 BRIS Late Pace rating, and his 103 BRIS Speed rating was commendable given the moderate early tempo.
However, he did beat a soft field. Runner-up News Pending, a turf maiden winner who was drilled by maiden special weight foes at Aqueduct in his last dirt attempt, was not a quality opponent so the competition will get much tougher next time.
And the Fountain of Youth did not answer any distance questions. Union Rags is a son of Dixie Union, whose best runners thus far have been most effective at nine furlongs or less, and Union Rags' older siblings were primarily short-distance specialists. His dam, the Gone West mare Tempo, has produced six older full or half-siblings to race in the United States and none were successful past 1 1/16 miles. This is also the immediate female family of the Grade 2-winning sprinter Satans Quick Chick.
Regardless of any pedigree concerns, Union Rags remains a very formidable prospect. Making his first start off a four-month layoff, he moved like a colt who wants more ground through the stretch of the Fountain of Youth. And Matz has been down this road before, saddling Barbaro to a 6 1/2-length romp in the 2006 Derby following a pair of wins at Gulfstream Park. The savvy conditioner will be looking for more next time from his star pupil.
Barring a hiccup in the Florida Derby, Union Rags could easily wind up as the clear favorite in this year's Kentucky Derby.
El Padrino brought plenty of hype into the Risen Star, recording a good-looking allowance score at Gulfstream Park in his three-year-old bow January 29, but both of his career wins came over "off" tracks. He earned his first win on a fast track Saturday, but it was not easy due to Mark Valeski, who turned in an ultra-game performance in his stakes and two-turn debut.
Bet down to 4-5 favoritism among 11 rivals, El Padrino broke well with Javier Castellano and settled into a stalking position just behind the early leaders. Mark Valeski sat a better trip in second, up close to the moderate pace, and got first jump on his rival, moving to the fore at the conclusion of the far turn. The runner-up was stubborn all the way to the finish line.
Castellano asked for run turning for home and El Padrino made his move approaching the eighth pole. The big, long-striding colt towered over the smaller Mark Valeski along the inside and the three-year-olds brushed against each other during the stretch drive. Jockey Rosie Napravnik claimed foul, alleging that El Padrino came over into Mark Valeski, but the stewards disallowed her objection.
After receiving a 111 BRIS Speed rating in his previous outing, El Padrino registered a 101 for his first stakes victory Saturday. His Speed rating may have declined, but the Risen Star provided a valuable building block for the up-and-coming chestnut. This kind of effort will toughen him up for future engagements.
The Pulpit colt is going to handle any distance -- it will be a matter of whether he's good enough -- and there appears to be plenty of room for further improvement. El Padrino, who figures to return for the Louisiana Derby on April 1, must be viewed as a serious Kentucky Derby threat for Todd Pletcher.
Mark Valeski, who had raced exclusively at six furlongs or less in his first three starts, was exiting an entry-level allowance victory on January 13. The lightly-raced colt gained plenty in defeat, establishing himself as a top-tier prospect for Larry Jones, and the Proud Citizen colt will look to show even more while stretching out to nine furlongs in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.
Saturday's Gotham is the lone graded event this weekend and a baker's dozen will face the starter at the Big A.
Hansen, who defeated Union Rags in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile en route to his Eclipse Award for champion two-year-old male, will attempt to rebound from a well-beaten second in his 2012 bow, the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes. The speedy colt was too keen following a stumbling start last time, whipping through a second quarter mile in 22 seconds, but there is very little speed entered against him in the Gotham.
Look for the gray colt to dominate on the front end beneath Ramon Dominguez.
My Adonis and Done Talking appear to be at a disadvantage in the Gotham line-up, but both are eligible to make at least a minor impact from off the pace. My Adonis made up a ton of ground in the stretch to finish third in the Holy Bull and Done Talking will be making his first appearance since a close fourth in the Grade 2 Remsen last fall.
Side Road is an interesting entrant for Kiaran McLaughlin, who lost expected Gotham starter Consortium to an injury. The Darley homebred son of Street Cry exits a four-length maiden special weight score at two turns on the inner track January 28.
This weekend also features the second pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.
The Derby is nine weeks from this Saturday.