Union Rags has been the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) favorite ever since the season began, and his impressive debut victory in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (gr. II) only solidified that status. If the son of Dixie Union can win the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) March 31 at Gulfstream Park—and do it convincingly—he will march in Louisville as not only the one to beat, but with even loftier expectations that will have everyone buzzing about ending a Triple Crown drought that has lasted 33 years.
Of course, there is plenty of time for Triple Crown talk and so first things first—the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby that drew a field of nine 3-year-olds. Installed as the 6-5 morning-line favorite, Union Rags will meet the upset-minded News Pending, who was a distant second in the Fountain of Youth, and the highly regarded Take Charge Indy. But it is Risen Star (gr. II) winner El Padrino from the barn of leading trainer Todd Pletcher who figures to present the stiffest challenge.
The Florida Derby is the fifth of six graded stakes on Gulfstream’s Saturday program with an approximate post time of 5:40 p.m. EDT.
Bred and owned by Phyllis Wyeth’s Chadds Ford Stable, Union Rags drew post 6 and will be ridden for the second time by Julien Leparoux. The bay colt was sent off as the 6-5 favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth on Feb. 26, and crushed the field by four lengths. The final margin of victory was not indicative of how well he ran, as Leparoux had him well in hand in the stretch and there was plenty more left in the tank.
Trainer Michael Matz last won the Florida Derby in 2006 with Barbaro, who also went on to triumph in the Kentucky Derby. He could not be any more confident in Union Rags, whose only blemish came by a head in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last fall at Churchill Downs. The colt is 4-1-0 from five starts with earnings of $1,098,800.
“Just to see the way he (won the Fountain of Youth), with such ease, we couldn’t have written it any better,” Matz said. “When he came back I asked Julien if there was anything he could tell me, and he said, ‘No, when I asked him to wait he waited, and when I asked him to go he went. It was just a nice easy ride.’
“I think he should take a step forward from that. It didn’t look like he had to give everything he had. I would hope that having a race under his belt would help him for the Florida Derby.”
Union Rags has worked three times at Palm Meadows since his latest victory, the last one an easy four-furlong breeze in :49 on March 24. Leparoux won last year’s Florida Derby with Dialed In.
A runaway leader of the Gulfstream trainer standings, Pletcher won the Florida Derby in 2007 with Scat Daddy and will have the 2-1 second betting choice in Let’s Go Stable’s El Padrino. The son of Pulpit already has a two-turn win at Gulfstream this meet, that coming in a Jan. 29 optional claimer. But the chestnut colt punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby in his next start, the Feb. 25 Risen Star at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. He outfought Mark Valeski in a bitter stretch duel that day and now faces an even tougher test against Union Rags.
El Padrino, based in South Florida, will have the benefit of having leading Gulfstream rider Javier Castellano, who passed up a chance to ride Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth in order to stay with Team Pletcher. They will break from post 8.
“We certainly could have gone other places where it probably would have been a little easier, but we felt it was more a case of managing our horse the way we want to as opposed to handicapping the race,” said Pletcher. "It takes out the shipping factor and things like that, but the Florida Derby is a significant race, a grade I with a big purse. The Florida Derby is here. We felt it was not only the best next start for him but also the best way to go to Churchill, hopefully.
"It’s a daunting task running against Union Rags, who looked awesome the other day, but we feel like the Florida Derby is the right spot for our horse."
Dale Romans trainee News Pending turned in a solid showing in the Fountain of Youth, which was his stakes debut. The son of Harlan's Holiday, sent off at odds of 27-1, raced close to the pace that day and figures to do so again under Rajiv Maragh.
News Pending broke his maiden on the Gulfstream turf course back in December and also ran second in an optional claimer on the turf before switching back to dirt.
Harlan’s Holiday won this event in 2002.
Romans also entered maiden Z Camelot, who is winless in four starts.
Others coming out of the Fountain of Youth are the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, Neck 'n Neck and Fort Loudon. Trained by Ian Wilkes, Neck ‘n Neck has won just once in seven starts. The Florida-bred Fort Loudon is based at Calder Casino & Race Course with trainer Stanley Gold.
Trainer Pat Byrne is hopeful that Take Charge Indy is sitting on a big race. The A.P. Indy colt was entered in the March 10 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) but was withdrawn after he drew post 10. Byrne is gambling that his horse will benefit from racing again at Gulfstream, where he finished second to El Padrino in that Jan. 29 allowance ontest.
Owned by Chuck and Maribeth Sandford, Take Charge Indy (5-1) has just one win in five starts, that coming in his debut last summer on the Arlington Park Polytrack. He was fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Byrne said he has worked well at Palm Meadows coming into this race, his last breeze coming March 24.
Also in the field is Reveron who won the Jan. 1 Gulfstream Park Derby at 1 1/16 miles and was subsequently a close third in the Sam F. Davis (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 4. The Songandaprayer colt has fired a couple of bullet works since his last race, those coming at Calder for trainer Agustin Bezara.
“He knows this track. He has won at this track. And it’s close," said the Venezuelan-born Bezara of his decision to run Reveron in a tough race.
Completing the lineup is Bartolome, who finished seventh, 27 1/2 lengths behind El Padrino in the Jan. 29 allowance race.
$1 million Florida Derby (gr. I, Race 11, 5:40 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Trainer 1. Fort Loudon (FL), L Jurado, S Gold
2. News Pending (KY), R Maragh, D Romans
3. Take Charge Indy (KY), C Borel, P Byrne
4. Neck 'n Neck (KY), E Prado, I Wilkes
5. Z Camelot (KY), J Bravo, D Romans
6. Union Rags (KY), J Leparoux, M Matz
7. Bartolome (KY), J Castanon, J Garoffalo
8. El Padrino (KY), J Castellano, T Pletcher
9. Reveron (KY), E Trujillo, A Bezara All horses will carry 122 pounds