Union Rags, who dominated an overmatched group by four lengths in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth in his three-year-old debut, can solidify his status as the nation's leading classic prospect with a similar performance in Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. The nine-furlong test, which will serve as a final prep for the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby for several of its entrants, anchors an outstanding 13-race program that includes six other stakes, five of which are graded.
The once-beaten Union Rags, denied juvenile division honors following an unlucky head loss to Hansen in last fall's Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, bounced back in fine style in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth on February 26. Sent off as second choice behind the speedy Discreet Dancer, Union Rags made short work of both that rival and five others. Making a three-wide move to the lead entering the stretch, Union Rags moved to the fore while under minimal encouragement from Julien Leparoux, who was riding the colt for the first time.
"I think he should take a step forward from the Fountain of Youth," said trainer Michael Matz, who also trained the ill-fated Barbaro to a Florida Derby/Kentucky Derby sweep in 2006. "You're never sure what to expect coming off of a four-month layoff, but it couldn't have gone any better. I was very pleased. It didn't look like he had to give everything he had. I would hope that having a race under his belt would help him for the Florida Derby.
"He had some unfortunate problems in the Breeders' Cup, but I think it was an isolated incident. He's more mature physically and mentally than he was as two-year-old, and I think it showed in his last race. I asked Julien if there was anything we need to work on after the race and he said 'not really. When I ask him to wait, he waits. When I ask him to go, he goes.'"
Winner of the Grade 1 Champagne and Grade 2 Saratoga Special last season, Union Rags was made the prohibitive 6-5 morning line favorite for the Florida Derby and will break from post 6 in a field nine.
On paper, the most serious threat to the favorite is El Padrino. A late bloomer compared to Union Rags, the big chestnut broke his maiden by nearly 13 lengths in his second career start last October, and then finished a close third in the Grade 2 Remsen to conclude his juvenile campaign.
The Todd Pletcher-trainee has taken a massive jump forward since then, winning a Gulfstream allowance by two lengths in quick time, and then outgaming Mark Valeski to take the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds by a nose in his most recent start. The son of Pulpit seeks to avenge the loss of his sire in this race back in 1997.
"Physically, he's a big strong colt but has good acceleration and can be pretty tactical in his races," Pletcher said. “He's becoming more and more professional. His allowance race here was an impressive race for a young horse, sitting behind horses on the inside and having to wait for something to open and finishing up strongly against a horse that was kind of loose on the lead.
"Then, he went to Louisiana and showed he had some courage in a dogfight with a nice horse (Mark Valeski) and was able to put his nose down at the wire. It's nice to know that he's capable of sitting behind horses and taking some dirt when he's down inside, and that when he gets in a situation that he needs to find more, he can come up with it."
The remainder of the Florida Derby field could be running for minor checks if the top pair run to form. The most likely upsetter of the rest is Take Charge Indy, two lengths second to El Padrino in the aforementioned allowance. The regally-bred son of A.P. Indy, out of multiple Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady, bypassed last month's Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby after drawing a wide post and was re-directed to the Florida Derby by trainer Pat Byrne.
News Pending crashed the Fountain of Youth exacta at 27-1 following a runner-up effort in a turf allowance. The Dale Romans trainee seems to be improving at the right time, but may have more than just four lengths to make up against Union Rags. Others exiting the Fountain of Youth are Fort Loudon and Neck 'n Neck, both of whom experienced rough trips early in the race.
Revereon captured the inaugural Gulfstream Park Derby over 1 1/16 miles on New Year's Day, and then weakened to third in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs after making a brief lead in the stretch. The Calder-based colt has posted excellent works over his home track's toughness-building surface, but will need to quicken.
The rank outsiders in the Florida Derby are maiden winner Bartoleme, who's been beaten by significant margins in three attempts against softer, and the Romans-trained maiden Z Camelot.