With Algorithms scratched from the $400,000 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO), Union Rags made easy work of what had been a highly anticipated match-up at Gulfstream Park Feb. 26.
Union Rags, trained by Michael Matz for Phyllis Wyeth's Chadds Ford Stable, showed himself to be a much more mature colt in his 3-year-old debut, winning by four lengths. He surpassed $1 million in career earnings with his fourth victory in five lifetime starts.
Ridden for the first time by Julien Leparoux, Union Rags settled nicely in third behind the pacesetter Discreet Dancer, who set a moderate clip. Racing mid-pack to the final turn, he angled three-wide to get the lead at the quarter pole and was in control in upper stretch, pulling away from 27-1 outsider News Pending and winning as much the best under a chilly Leparoux.
Leparoux inherited the ride on Union Rags from Javier Castellano, who opted for Algorithms as his top horse on this year's Triple Crown trail. The undefeated Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) winner sustained a popped splint in his right front leg, however, and had to be scratched by trainer Todd Pletcher.
“I was hoping he would run a good race, but I was not expecting that," Leparoux said. "He’s such an easy horse to ride and did everything so easily. I didn’t hit him once. I just showed him the stick a couple times. I’m sure he was not 100% today, which means he should just get better.”
Union Rags was sent off as the second choice in the field of seven at odds of 6-5. The final time for the 1 1/16-mile test for 3-year-olds was 1:42.68 on a fast track.
News Pending finished second, with Discreet Dancer, the 4-5 favorite, tiring in the final furlong to finish third.
Union Rags romped in last year's Saratoga Special (gr. II) and Champagne Stakes (gr. I) before running somewhat greenly in a tight runner-up finish to Hansen in the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). He had been working consistently for his return at Palm Meadows Training Center for Matz, who made it clear he did not have Union Rags fully cranked for his first start of the year.
Matz, who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with Barbaro, said afterward he would point Union Rags to the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) March 31.
"You never know after a four-month rest: Do you have the horse fit enough, did you do this, did you do that? You always go through 51 questions. I guess we did it right this time," the trainer said. "The next stop will be the Florida Derby, and hope we can go to the Kentucky Derby.”
Bred in Kentucky, Union Rags is by Dixie Union out of the Gone West mare Tempo. Wyeth sold Union Rags at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton August sale for $145,000, but bought him back at last February's Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-old sale for $390,000.
“We were just out for a practice run," Wyeth said afterward. "Can you believe that one? And we didn’t want him to peak too soon."
Discreet Dancer, ridden by John Velazquez, got the early lead along the inside while under pressure from News Pending, with Kent Desormeaux aboard. Those two led Union Rags, with Casual Trick also in contention along the inside, into the final turn while clipping off quarter-mile splits of :24.50, :48.11, and 1:12.05.
Union Rags pulled Leparoux to the lead three-wide rounding the bend and was still in hand as he drew clear to lead by two lengths at mid-stretch. He finished under a hand ride.
Matz, asked if he was as confident in Union Rags as he was with Barbaro, responded: "Well, Barbaro was an undefeated horse and we had a lot of confidence in him; there was no doubt. If it wasn’t for maybe two feet (Union Rags) would be undefeated, also. I think (Union Rags) a real good horse, he has a got a real good disposition, and I certainly don’t think there’s any problem with distance with him.”
News Pending finished 2 1/4 lengths clear of E. Paul Robsham's homebred Discreet Dancer, who lost for the first time in three starts for Pletcher while making his stakes debut.
“There were no real excuses," Pletcher said. "We got the trip we wanted and he just finished evenly.”
Union Rags carried top weight of 122 pounds and paid $4.40, $3.20, $2.10. He combined with News Pending ($10.80, $3.60) for a $62.20 exacta. Discreet Dancer paid $2.10 to show.
The winner's share of $240,000 boosted Union Rags' career earnings to $1,098,800.