01/04/2013 3:21PM

2012 Eclipse Awards: Union Rags

photo by: Justin N. Lane

An Eclipse Award finalist at age 2, and again tonight for champion 3-year-old male, Union Rags for two consecutive seasons ranked among the elite of his generation. He was a Grade 1 winner both years, including the Belmont Stakes in 2012. The Belmont was bittersweet, though, for while it avenged a frustrating loss in the Kentucky Derby, it turned out to be the final start of his career.

Much was expected of Union Rags coming into 2012. He barely missed winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2011, that narrow defeat costing him not only an unbeaten record, but likely the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. He came back roaring. In his 3-year-old debut on Feb. 26, Union Rags blew away his six rivals in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, romping by four lengths in a performance that stamped him as the ante-post favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

“You never know how they are going to act after four months off,” said his trainer, Michael Matz, as the Florida Derby neared on March 31. “But I thought we couldn’t have written it any better.”

The script took a detour. Union Rags had a traffic-filled trip in the Florida Derby, in which he rallied belatedly to finish third, and then in the Kentucky Derby, he broke slowly, found himself far back early, ran into more trouble near the far turn, yet remarkably closed well enough to finish seventh.

It was a frustrating turn of events for Matz, who thought Union Rags had a chance to bring him his second Derby win, following Barbaro in 2006.

“I don’t mind getting beat, I just don’t like getting beat the way he did in both the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby,” Matz told Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch. “He never got a chance to run or really show his true ability.” The decision was made to bypass the Preakness and point for the Belmont, over the track at which Union Rags had won the Champagne Stakes at age 2.

The Belmont lost much of its appeal when I’ll Have Another, the Derby and Preakness winner, was forced to scratch the day before with a career-ending injury, but for the connections of Union Rags, the Belmont provided vindication. Union Rags, with John Velazquez aboard for the first time, rallied up the rail in the closing strides to edge Paynter in a dramatic finish.

Matz was gratified Union Rags provided a happy ending for Phyllis Wyeth, who bred Union Rags, sold him as a yearling, then bought him back at age 2.

“I’m just glad for Phyllis and the horse that we got a chance to see the real Union Rags,” Matz said. Wyeth is the wife of the famed American painter Jamie Wyeth, who is the son of another famous painter, Andrew Wyeth. She bred Union Rags by sending the Gone West mare Tempo to the sire Dixie Union. “I had a dream,” Wyeth said. “I knew he would be a good horse, and I knew Michael could do it. He made my dream come true.”

Shortly after the Belmont, Union Rags injured a ligament in his left front leg. The decision was made to retire him to stud, a career he will begin this spring at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky.