Kentucky Derby

Union Rags has look of a champion but has to prove it

Derby horses gathered to take the track for morning exercises  at Churchill Downs  on Thursday May 3, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Derby horses gathered to take the track for morning exercises at Churchill Downs on Thursday May 3, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — Were he a human athlete, he'd be that guy a team would want coming off the bus first — the kind who reeks of powerful presence both in his physical makeup and mental focus.

Even if the connections of his 19 other competitors aren't conceding any part of the 138th Kentucky Derby to Union Rags, the universal opinion regarding the son of Dixie Union is he has the look of a horse who knows he's something special.

Whether or not he backs that up with his effort in the 11/4-mile classic Saturday, Union Rags has already proven exceptional in his ability to inspire confidence even when he shows chinks in his armor.

Union Rags has lost two of his last three starts — first when he ran second to eventual champion Hansen in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs last November and more recently when he took third as the heavy favorite in the Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 31.

Even after those defeats, Union Rags is regarded by many as the one to beat in the first leg of the Triple Crown and would have been the morning-line favorite had Bodemeister not been so dominant winning the Arkansas Derby by 91/2 lengths on April 14.

As much as Thoroughbred racing is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately environment, it is also a sport that can produce ample excuses when things go awry.

In the Breeders' Cup, an extremely wide trip throughout was seen as the culprit for Union Rags' defeat by a head — the lone loss in his four-race juvenile campaign. When Take Charge Indy finished 11/4 lengths in front of Union Rags in the Florida Derby, some thought the fact the bay colt was kept off the pace behind tepid fractions on a track that favors speed was too much to overcome regardless of talent.

"I think everyone knows he's a good horse," said trainer Michael Matz, who saddled Barbaro to victory in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. "The two races that he lost, they obviously know there was a problem, whether he got shuffled wide or get hemmed in.

"It was a length and a half that cost him two Grade I's, $1.2 million and an Eclipse Award, but there's nothing you can do about it," Matz said. "I'll settle for the consolation prize. If they told me which I had to choose from the Breeders' Cup or the Derby, I'll take that."

Much of the reason Phyllis Wyeth's colt has been forgiven for his bobbles is how striking he looked in his winning efforts and how much he stands out physically from many of his class.

His 71/4-length victory in the Grade II Saratoga Special last August still ranks as his most gaudy winning margin, but it was Union Rags' third career start in the Grade I Champagne Stakes last October that had people thinking the Breeders' Cup would be his coronation.

In that outing, he went from being hopelessly stuck behind horses to a 51/4-length win in a matter of strides. When he made his season debut this February in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, Union Rags again was able find another gear without breaking a sweat, winning that 11⁄16-mile test by 4 lengths in his typical off-the-pace style.

"It's been amazing, the further he goes the stronger he gets," said Matz, whose only other Derby starter since Barbaro has been Visionaire, 12th in 2008. "He's really matured physically and mentally. I've had one great horse in Barbaro and I think I might have a second one."

Both around the barn and on the track, Union Rags gives off a rarefied air, so much so that his owner had seller's remorse after initially parting with the colt for $145,000 at 2010 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale.

Wyeth, the wife of famed artist Jamie Wyeth, says she had a vivid dream of her colt becoming a stakes winner and subsequently ponied up $390,000 to get her boy back.

"I really did have that dream. I said, 'How could I have sold him? That was a big mistake," Wyeth said in March. "He was so gorgeous and his temperament was so wonderful."

As much as his well-balanced build and smooth-as-silk stride contribute to Union Rags' aptitude, so too does his mature mind. He will need it in order to take care of himself in the most challenging race of his life, one his connections hope will not necessitate the need to find excuses for him.

"You can always train them as hard as you want to up to a race and hopefully you've done enough," Matz said. "It's exciting for me to be back again with a horse that really has a chance to win the Kentucky Derby if not the Triple Crown. And it's an exciting time for Phyllis. She's never had a horse like this."