NEW YORK (AP) — In the moments before the Kentucky Derby, trainer Michael Matz thought it would be his horse attempting to win the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Instead, after a troubled trip left Union Rags seventh on the first Saturday in May, Matz’s colt will try to play spoiler when Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another takes a shot at becoming the first Triple Crown champion in 34 years.
Union Rags, along with Derby third-place finisher Dullahan, are given the best chances of knocking off 4-5 morning-line favorite I’ll Have Another. Dullahan is 5-1, Union Rags 6-1 in the 12-horse field.
All Matz is looking for is a clean trip for his imposing bay colt. After winning the Fountain of Youth to become an early Derby favorite, Union Rags got tangled in traffic in the Florida Derby and finished third. Then he got bumped by Dullahan at the start of the Kentucky Derby, was trapped on the inside and never had a chance.
“I really thought this horse could win the Triple Crown, and then everything went the wrong way,” Matz said Wednesday after Union Rags arrived from Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., and settled into Belmont Park’s detention barn created for security reasons for all the Belmont horses.
“It’s just one of those things that happens, and you have to let it go. It was very disappointing.”
The son of Dixie Union comes into the race fresh, too, having skipped the Preakness to prepare for the 1½-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three races over five weeks at different distances and racetracks. And John Velazquez will be aboard for the first time, replacing Julien Leparoux.
“He’s one of the top riders in New York,” Matz said of Velazquez. “We hope he’ll give him a chance.”
Matz’s biggest worry Wednesday was getting Union Rags settled in his new surroundings. Union Rags went for a morning gallop at Fair Hill, cooled down and was fed, and then was loaded into a horse van for the trip to Belmont Park. Arrival time was about 11 a.m., and Matz was just relieved to get the travel day behind him. He passed up the post-position draw, with Union Rags owner Phyllis Wyeth subbing for her trainer.
“Obviously we’ve been a little disappointed,” said Wyeth, the wife of American realist painter Jamie Wyeth. “We feel that Union Rags hasn’t been able to really run his race. We think he can do the mile and a half. He’s training really, really well.”
Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches, was aboard Union Rags for a workout last week and called him “impressive.”
Matz would like nothing more than to see Union Rags come through for his owner. He admires her resolve of having spent some 50 years in a wheelchair after being injured in a car crash.
“It was unfortunate not to have that opportunity in the Derby for his owner,” said Matz, who won the 2006 Derby with Barbaro for Gretchen and Roy Jackson. “We don’t know if she’ll ever have another chance like this again. She is not the healthiest woman in the world, and anything I can do that helps her … I can’t imagine 50 years like that in a wheelchair. I’ve got to take my hat off to her. She is a wonderful person.”
Union Rags won his first three starts, including the Champagne Stakes at Belmont. He finished second to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after a wide trip, then started on what looked to be a promising 3-year-old campaign with a four-length win in the Fountain of Youth with Leparoux aboard for the first time, after he had replaced Javier Castellano.
Matz says Union Rags is coming into the race in great shape.
“He couldn’t be doing any better,” he said. “Hopefully we will see the true Union Rags.”
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