Union Rags

Union Rags

Coglianese Photos/Courtney Stafford

Matz Feels Union Rags Has Point to Prove

Trainer focusing on helping colt prove he's the best 3-year-old in America.

Michael Matz has put the past behind him and is only focusing on getting Union Rags  past the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) March 31 and on to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). But if you bring up the subject of last year’s Eclipse Award voting for 2-year-old male, don’t expect the trainer to remain silent.

It is obvious that Matz is still bothered by the results of the voting, not so much that Union Rags lost out to Hansen, but by the wide margin of victory.


Union Rags went into the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) off impressive victories in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) and Champagne Stakes (gr. I). In the latter, he had to overcome traffic problems, altering course sharply at the three-sixteenths pole, and still won going away by 5 1/4 lengths. Hansen had won both his starts in runaways at Turfway Park, including a 13 1/4-length romp in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile.


In the Breeders’ Cup, Hansen opened a clear lead early through modest fractions, while Union Rags had to race wide every step of the way, actually traveling 78 feet farther than Hansen. In the stretch, Hansen dug in gamely when challenged by Union Rags, who drifted out at a crucial point. He made a late charge at Hansen, but fell a head short. Both colts emerged from the race as worthy champions, but when the votes were counted, it was Hansen in a landslide, something Matz still finds incomprehensible.


“I was surprised it was such a big margin,” Matz said. “When you look at something and see it one way and it comes out another, you ask, ‘How could I be so wrong?’ The margin (in the Juvenile) was only a head, yet the voting was 3-1. Is the criteria just the Breeders’ Cup? I found it difficult to think I was that far off base.


"I thought Zenyatta should have gotten it the year when she won the Breeders’ Cup, but she got it the year she lost the Breeders’ Cup. My horse didn’t have the best trip in the Juvenile and he got beat a head. This is just my opinion and my feelings, but I admit I’m biased. The voters had different feelings. Graham Motion had a helluva year last year and he wasn’t even one of the three (trainer) finalists. The bottom line is I just couldn’t see the 3-1 ratio in the voting.”


But now it is time to move on and have Union Rags prove who is the best 3-year-old in the country.


“He’s done everything we’ve asked of him and has done it every which way you want,” Matz said. “He’s won from off the pace and close to the pace. He has a terrific temperament and a great mind.”


It is natural to try to compare Union Rags with Barbaro, and Matz said there are similarities between the two.


“We gave Barbaro five weeks to the Derby, just as we’re giving Union Rags,” Matz said. “We thought that was the proper amount of time. With Barbaro, the media didn’t think that. They’re both big strong horses. Union Rags will have only two races at 3, but he did more as a 2-year-old. This horse has a ways to go to prove what Barbaro did, but we hope we get the same results.”


The campaign couldn’t have started out any better, with Union Rags winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) by four lengths under wraps.


“Just to see the way he did it, with such ease, we couldn’t have written it any better,” Matz said. “When he came back I asked Julien (Leparoux) 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.’”


Matz added, “I actually had tried to get Julien to ride him at Saratoga. He’s a very patient rider and doesn’t get too nervous when things don’t go right. I also have to give credit to my assistant Peter Brette. This horse has a beautiful mouth and is very easy to control for as big as he is. He’s just a joy to be around. The only bad thing is he can be a bit of a bully when you walk him, but under tack he’s a real gentleman.”


Matz is happy that Union Rags’ owner, Phyllis Wyeth, who gets around in a wheelchair, is able to enjoy a horse like this.


“For her to have a horse like this at her age and what she’s been through her whole life is very special,” Matz said. “It says a lot that she sold this horse and bought him back (for almost three times what she sold him for). She’s a wonderful person and couldn’t be any better to work for.


“He worked well at the sales and as 2-year-old on the farm. He was always very professional. He worked with other 2-year-olds and with older horses. When he was ready to run I said to Peter there’s no reason why we shouldn’t give him experience and run him (going five furlongs). I’m not noted for running my horses in sprints, but even with me training him he won that race, so I knew he must be a good horse.”


Matz said if all goes well in the Florida Derby, he’ll probably keep Union Rags at Palm Meadows for two weeks and give him a maintenance work there, and then make a decision whether to train him at Keeneland, as he did with Barbaro.


Matz also is not looking back in regard to being fired by Barbaro’s owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who let him go without an explanation.


“I have to move on,” Matz said. “It did hurt an awful lot when I wasn’t told why I was let go. I just have to feel I was lucky enough they gave me a horse like Barbaro to train. So I have no complaints. I’m just lucky to be back again. What happened is over and done. It hurt at the time but I’m over that now. I haven’t spoken to them since, but I’m sure I’ll run into them along the way at some point.”