Michael Matz says he likes his chances with Union Rags in the Kentucky Derby as much as he did six years ago with Barbaro.
Barbaro, who entered the 2006 event undefeated, won by the largest margin in 60 years. Union Rags is entering this year’s race as the second favorite, with morning line odds of 9-2, behind 4-1 chance Bodemeister.
“Union Rags isn’t undefeated, but he can accomplish what Barbaro did,” Matz, who trained them both, said in a telephone interview from Louisville, Kentucky. “They’re both big strong colts with a ton of ability.”
The first leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown will be run tomorrow at Churchill Downs in Louisville. It’s a 20-horse field and the winner receives $1.46 million.
Barbaro lost none of his six starts heading into the 1 1/4- mile (2-kilometer) derby in 2006 and won by seven lengths. Two weeks later, he suffered multiple fractures of his right hind ankle in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
For eight months, Barbaro’s injury and recovery captured the public’s attention before the horse was euthanized Jan. 29, 2007, when laminitis, a life-threatening inflammatory condition, moved into his front feet.
Union Rags, housed in the same stall in Barn 42 that was occupied by Barbaro at Churchill Downs (CHDN), has earned almost $1.2 million in six starts, in which he’s won four times and finished second and third in the other races.
Sold, Bought Back
Bred by Phyllis Wyeth, Union Rags was sold for $145,000 in 2010 to IEAH Stables, the owner of Big Brown, which won the 2008 Derby and Preakness before coming in last in the Belmont Stakes. The following March, Wyeth bought back the colt as a 2-year-old for $390,000.
“I’ve been training for Phyllis Wyeth for quite a few years,” the 61-year-old Matz said as he shouted orders to workers feeding his horses in Union Rags’ barn at the Louisville track. “Phyllis had horses for me, but they weren’t good enough. Then she bought this very big, attractive looking colt.”
Union Rags won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida, on Feb. 26. He’s lost two races by a total of 1 1/2 lengths, coming in third in the Florida Derby on March 31 and second behind Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the race for 2-year-olds destined for the Triple Crown events. Hansen has 10-1 odds in the Kentucky Derby, and will be leaving from the 14th gate.
“He’s done everything right so far,” Matz said of Union Rags. “We’ve gotten him a little harder in each race.”
Bodemeister, who didn’t race as a 2-year-old, is trained by three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert and is running from the sixth post position, two gates outside Union Rags. The colt won the Arkansas Derby last month by 9 1/2 lengths. In between is Dullahan, who was given 8-1 odds, while undefeated Gemologist will be challenging from the 15th spot at 6-1.
Mike Battaglia, who has been handicapping horses at Churchill Downs since 1975, said he favored Bodemeister over Union Rags because “his Arkansas Derby was huge.”
“It was very close,” Battaglia said after the post draw. “If Bodemeister had drawn the one, or even the two, I would’ve switched them and made Union Rags the favorite.”
Trainer Larry Jones said this year’s Derby field has too many talented competitors for his 3-year-old Mark Valeski, which he withdrew this week.
“When you go in, you’ve got to be ready to tackle the bears,” Jones said. “This is a very deep field. We feel like we belong with them, but there’s going to be a horse that runs 15th that’s a very good horse. It’s not like you just go out there and hope that Union Rags gets a bad trip, then we win.”
Jockey Julien Leparoux, 28, is looking for his first Triple Crown victory aboard Union Rags. His rides have earned more than $85 million in prize money and he has amassed 1,652 first-place finishes in 8,431 starts.
If Matz’s feelings about his colt are accurate, Leparoux may achieve his goal.
“I’ve had one great horse in Barbaro,” Matz said. “I think I might have a second one.”
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