Even as the list of challengers lining up to face Union Rags in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes got more accomplished, Michael Matz never once thought he should choose a softer spot for the colt to get his 3-year-old legs underneath him.
If nothing else, being a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer and former Olympian has taught Matz a thing or two about big-picture thinking. And on Sunday, Matz is either going to find out how exceptional the 17-hand monster in his barn really is or how much more fine-tuning is needed to fully unearth Union Rags' top form.
The horse who has been at or near the top of most experts' pre-Derby lists will make his 2012 debut Sunday when Union Rags faces seven others in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Given how impressive Union Rags looked during his 2-year-old campaign — a win in the Grade II Saratoga Special and Grade I Champagne Stakes and a head runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile — there has been ripe anticipation over how the bay colt handles the transition into his sophomore year.
Turns out, the son of Dixie Union has a doozy of a litmus test facing him in the 11⁄16-mile Fountain of Youth. Holy Bull Stakes winner Algorithms and unbeaten Discreet Dancer are both being unleashed from the stable of trainer Todd Pletcher to see if they can catch Union Rags in a vulnerable state.
Should he topple this group in his first start since the Breeders' Cup, it will cement Union Rags as the horse to catch en route to the Kentucky Derby. While Matz has him ready to deliver a winning effort, he recognizes taking this battle isn't a necessity.
"I think the great situation is with Union Rags right now, we know we have enough graded stakes earnings where you know, I don't have to win the Fountain of Youth," said Matz, who trained 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. "I am hoping for a good race to make him step forward to the fact that when we get to the Kentucky Derby he will be at his peak form.
"Those horses (Algorithms and Discreet Dancer) have had a couple of races under their belts so we will just have to see. We can't change our program because of the other horses running in it. You're going to meet them sooner or later, but our main objective is probably not the first race but the two races later."
Both physically and mentally, Union Rags has been the man among boys, according to Matz. His balanced frame had the look of an older horse even last year, and his demeanor is about as unflappable as that of his trainer.
For those reasons, Matz is hopeful Union Rags can avoid the pitfall of being just a brilliant juvenile who can't advance his form as the rest of his classmates mature. It's also why Matz feels Phyllis Wyeth's homebred needs just two preps leading into the Derby despite the fact such a schedule leaves little room for setbacks.
"If you were to say this is what you want in a horse, when I walked him by you, you'd say, 'I'll take one of them,'" Matz said. "Barbaro wasn't as mature as Union Rags as a 2-year-old. It took him a little bit later, where Union Rags had four races at 2 years old. Union Rags has a little bit better demeanor about him, it's just so easy to do everything with him. But he still has to prove what Barbaro did prove."
While Discreet Dancer has won both his starts on or near the lead and Algorithms seems to prefer sitting just off the pace, Union Rags has shown the ability to do his best running from just about anywhere in his three career wins.
He will have a new rider for this outing in Julien Leparoux as Union Rags' former regular pilot, Javier Castellano, chose to stay aboard Algorithms instead.
"I'm perfectly happy with Julien, he's a good rider," Matz said. "I think with this horse, he'll do whatever you want. He can run close to the pace, off the pace. He's probably as good as he can get now with not having a race underneath him."