Horse Racing

Questions persist for Derby contender Union Rags, and for his handlers

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — — Michael Matz and his assistants are tired of the question — most trainers and riders are by this point in the week before the country's most talked-about horse race — and give mostly a perfunctory answer.

"He's just a really nice horse," exercise rider Peter Brette said of Union Rags, one of the favorites to win the 138th Kentucky Derby on Saturday. "He's a nice, classy horse."

He's also the most scrutinized colt in a field that has fascinated even longtime observers of the sport. Union Rags passes every look test, and has failed to win only two of his five races — by a total of 11/2 lengths.

The way he faltered in those races has been the topic of much discussion, though. Seemingly the best horse in both the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November at Churchill Downs and the Florida Derby in late March, he controlled neither race and, worse, appeared to shy from making his move when he needed to.

"We realize that what we see as real excuses, other people might see it a different way," Brette said.

Matz and the rest of Union Rags' connections feel the horse was boxed in during the Florida Derby by a small field that conspired to hinder the heavy favorite. And at the Breeders' Cup, the colt fought traffic, then suddenly veered right when he should have been making his winning run.

But Matz feels confident that Saturday's race will break differently.

"Every other horse here isn't going to be racing on one horse," Matz said.

"We're going to have a chance to run our race."

Matz, who trains out of Fair Hill in Elkton, has acknowledged feeling nostalgic this week. He's back in the barn where Barbaro spent the days leading up to a runaway win in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Injured in the Preakness, Barbaro — who was undefeated until faltering at Pimlico Race Course —died of laminitis eight months later.

"They're both big, good-looking, fast and athletic," Matz said. "[Union Rags] still has to live up to what Barbaro did."

Part of Barbaro's mystique came from Matz himself, a three-time Olympian who won a silver medal and carried the United States flag in the closing ceremony at the 1996 Games. His teammates had chosen him for the honor in part because of his heroism after a plane crash in 1989.

Matz and his then-fiancee (now wife) D.D. Alexander had missed their connection to Philadelphia and opted to take United Airlines Flight 232, which would plummet to the ground in Iowa after its engines failed. Matz survived, led three unaccompanied children to safety and went back into the wreckage to save an 11-month-old baby.

Since losing Barbaro — which, according to Brette, "devastated all of us" — Matz, 61, has received few promising colts. He has had only one other Derby starter, 12th-place Visionaire in 2008, and the ownership group that brought him Barbaro dropped him late last year. His career as a trainer has come to be defined by Barbaro's shining run cut short, and the way it galvanized fans.

For him to even allow Union Rags to be mentioned with Barbaro signifies how strongly he feels. Matz, then, has been able to savor this trip and deflect what anyone else is saying about a horse he believes has shown enough, even in defeat.

"It's a great feeling to be back here after six years, especially with a horse that has a good chance," Matz said. "It doesn't happen too many times. I was lucky enough once. It's hard to believe that you can get lucky twice."

Matz, who focused on training thoroughbreds in 2000, received the colt from Chadds Fords Stable owner Phyllis Wyeth, who had sold Union Rags but was persuaded to buy him back — by her dreams. A descendant of the du Pont family who is married to artist Jamie Wyeth — the son of realist painter Andrew Wyeth — Phyllis Wyeth bred the colt on her Delaware farm but sold him at auction for $145,000.

She paid $390,000 to get him back February 2011. Once a steeplechase rider, Wyeth suffered a broken neck in a car accident at age 20 when she was on her way to work at the White House for President John F. Kennedy. Despite severely limited movement in her legs, she has bred and raced horses for 40 years, though her focus has been the steeplechase.

"She told me the other day she got on the plane to come down here and she cried," Matz said.

Julien Leparoux, one of the top young jockeys in the country, will ride Union Rags for a third time Saturday. A mainstay at Churchill Downs and the 2009 winner of the prestigious Eclipse Award for most outstanding jockey, he took much of the blame for never getting the horse in position to run during the Florida Derby.

Matz made it clear then that he felt the horse had not be given a fair chance to win. But that doesn't mean he's pushing Leparoux to change.

"I've never ridden a race in my life, so who am I to say, 'He should have done this?'" Matz said. "I think he felt the same way [about the trip], so for me to beat him up, what good would that do?"

Leparoux expressed confidence that he has a better understanding of how Union Rags wants to run.

"He's just a very nice horse," he said.

Though no one directly connected with the swerving narrative and significant potential surrounding Union Rags uses the word nice in a backhanded way, others wonder whether the colt out of a dream can finally keep running when there's no clear path and too much dirt kicked into his face.

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