For trainer Michael Matz, it is still too soon.
The weeks that have passed since the Kentucky Derby on May 5 haven't taken the edge off the disappointment in his voice.
As I'll Have Another was taking the first step toward potential immortality by running down Bodemeister to win the first leg of the Triple Crown — a feat he duplicated this past Saturday in the Preakness Stakes — Matz's well-regarded charge Union Rags was struggling. During what his trainer believed could be his crowning moment, Union Rags came home seventh after yet another troubled trip.
"I just didn't think after the Florida Derby it could happen again," Matz said during a national teleconference this week as he reflected on the Derby outing. "Obviously, it was worse."
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If there were a horse prior to the Kentucky Derby with the ability to sweep the Triple Crown, the consensus pick probably would have been Union Rags, the Grade I-winning colt whose flashes of brilliance were enough to make his fans overlook his bobbles. Proving how quickly the tide can turn in Thoroughbred racing, the son of Dixie Union now heads to the Belmont Stakes on June 9 not as the favorite, but as a potential spoiler looking to right his own ship and prove he was worthy of his hype.
Union Rags is expected to be among the contenders lining up to stop I'll Have Another from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner when the "Test of the Champion" is run at Belmont Park. While the racing world is waiting to see if I'll Have Another can end the 34-year drought since Affirmed completed the sweep, Matz is anxious to see if — given a fair chance — Union Rags' ability can still reign in the 3-year-old division.
The Florida Derby disappointed Matz, when Union Rags was taken too far back off a tepid pace and finished third as the favorite, but the Kentucky Derby, in which the bay colt broke poorly out of post No. 4 and got shuffled back to 18th, amplified the trainer's angst. Phyllis Wyeth's homebred had trained so flawlessly coming into the Derby that Matz still fumes that the colt has never got the chance to use his best stride.
"I just don't think this horse has had a chance to show his true ability in his last two races," Matz said. "People might be getting down on him but I think he never had a chance to run in those last two races. It's very disappointing. Everything went absolutely perfect (leading into the Derby) until the last two minutes. I thought this horse could win the Triple Crown. Unfortunately, all you can do is let it go, because it's not going to come back.
"I thought he was sitting on a big race the last two races. He's doing well, he's eating well. He couldn't be doing any better, and if he's good enough, hopefully we'll see the true Union Rags."
In an expected move, Matz announced Wednesday that he was replacing jockey Julien Leparoux — who had ridden Union Rags in all three of his starts this year — with Hall of Famer John Velazquez for the Belmont Stakes and beyond. Velazquez's extensive knowledge of the 11/2-mile Belmont oval is an advantage, but more than anything Matz felt they had to shake up Union Rags' run of bad luck in big races.
"Maybe it's the horse, I don't know, but he certainly didn't run that way in the Fountain of Youth (where he won by 4 lengths) when he had a clear shot," Matz said. "One of the ideas behind changing jockeys was to give him a clear shot and let him use his stride instead of being cramped up. I don't know whose fault it was in the Derby. Maybe it was the jockey's fault, maybe it was the horse's fault, maybe it was the trainer's fault. But we tried to do something different and this is what we did. Maybe we won't have a better result, but we had to try something."
With its sandy surface and sweeping turns, Belmont Park can trip up many a rider and horse not used to its massive circumference. One thing in Union Rags' favor is that he put in arguably the best outing of his seven-race career over that track, winning the Grade I Champagne Stakes in October by 51/4 lengths.
However, even in that effort Union Rags was stuck behind horses in midstretch before swinging out under Javier Castellano to make his run. Given the tactical ability I'll Have Another possesses and the superior mettle both he and his upstart jockey Mario Gutierrez have demonstrated, Matz knows Union Rags can't afford a misstep if he is to validate himself on Belmont day.
"Whether a mile and a half is the place to start, who knows? I have no idea," Matz said. "Whether he is good enough to beat (I'll Have Another) or not, I just want him to get a clean trip and show what he can do."