ELMONT, N.Y. - He was the horse everyone touted coming out of his two-year-old season with wins in three of four starts. He was the favorite each time in the Kentucky Derby futures betting. A four-length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in his three-year-old debut at Gulfstream Park did nothing to diminish the stature of Union Rags.
But then . . .
Horse racing is full of “but thens’’ for precocious two-year-olds who start the Derby season as prospects, then fade away.
Union Rags, trained by veteran Michael Matz, hasn’t quite faded away yet. In fact, there is some sentiment he can play the role of spoiler as I’ll Have Another goes after the Triple Crown in Saturday’s 144th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Two traffic-filled trips in the Florida Derby (where he finished third) and Kentucky Derby (where he finished seventh) have reduced expectations.
After Union Rags got caught in traffic in the Florida Derby and jockey Julien Leparoux was unable to escape it, Matz was hoping for better in the Kentucky Derby, but a bad start in the 20-horse field doomed him.
“When he jumped as he came out of the gate, I looked at my wife and said, ‘So much for the Kentucky Derby,’ ’’ Matz said Thursday morning. Matz’s decision to replace Leparoux with John Velazquez was, he says, strictly business.
“We had two unfortunate races,’’ said Matz. “Whether it was the rider, the trainer or the horse, I don’t know. But sometimes you have to go about doing things a little differently. I think he had some bad luck. The first time in the Florida Derby, whatever it was in the Derby. Your guess is as good as mine.’’
Matz feels Union Rags is the same horse who had so much promise as a two-year-old.
“I still feel he is a good horse,’’ said Matz, who kept Union Rags out of the Preakness in preparation for the Belmont, for which he was listed at 6-1 on the morning line. “I don’t think he had a chance in his last two races. I’m not sure if a mile and a half is the best race, but it’s the last Triple Crown race. I think he deserves a chance.
“The biggest thing for John is to get him in a nice rhythm. He knows the track well. He knows what he has to do. Julien knew that too and couldn’t get it done. He’s ran over this track before [a 5 1/4-length win in the Grade I Champagne Stakes last October]. Now it’s up to Johnny and the gods to get it done and that he gets a good trip. Whether he is good enough or not, we’ll find out. He’s a big horse. He covers the ground easily. But we don’t know. No one knows. None of these horses will probably run this distance again in their lives. It’s a big question.’’
I’ll Have Another jockey Mario Gutierrez, who has never ridden at Belmont, will get a glimpse of the track on Friday afternoon when he rides Boxeur Des Rues for trainer Doug O’Neill in the $200,000 Grade II Brooklyn Handicap, which will also be run over 1 1/2 miles . . . Trainer Ken McPeek, who has two horses in the Belmont, Atigun and Unstoppable U, says he would have liked trainer Bob Baffert to enter Bodemeister, who finished behind I’ll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. “It could have been Affirmed-Alydar all over again,’’ said McPeek, referring to the duel between Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown in 1978, and Alydar, who finished second in all three legs. “But Bob chickened out.’’ Baffert has Paynter entered in the Belmont.
Scary moment during the seventh race at Belmont on Thursday when Indigene Charm threw jockey Rosie Napravnik coming out of the gate. Napravnik, who is scheduled to ride Five Sixteen in the Belmont Stakes, was unhurt. Not so lucky was Irad Ortiz Jr., who was tossed from his mount, Logical Order, coming into the stretch. Ortiz was quickly taken away by an ambulance with neck and back injuries that are not regarded as major.