05/15/2012 3:52PM

2012 Preakness: Matz still haunted by Union Rags's slow start

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Barbara D. Livingston
As the horses passed the finish line the first time in the Kentucky Derby, Union Rags was already in trouble, sitting 18th of 20 horses.

ELKTON, Md. – The question didn’t have to be asked. Just listening to Michael Matz talk about the seventh-place finish by Union Rags in the Kentucky Derby it was easy to tell the trainer hasn’t gotten over the disappointment yet.

Tuesday morning, with showers alternating between heavy and heavier at the Fair Hill Training Center where he is based, Matz discussed the frustrations over having a horse primed and ready for the biggest race of his life only to have it lost two jumps out of the gate.

For Union Rags, the Derby was over at the start. Under Julien Leparoux, Union Rags broke a step to the right, was bumped hard by Dullahan and was pinched back. Coming under the wire the first time, Union Rags was 18th in the 20-horse field. He ultimately rallied to finish seventh, beaten 7 1/2 lengths by I’ll Have Another. Union Rags was the 5-1 second choice.

“I woke up the next day and I thought it was a nightmare,” Matz said. “I couldn’t have been feeling that I had the horse [better] prepared . . . Everything went in order except the last two minutes.”

Matz and owner Phyllis Wyeth decided almost immediately not to run Union Rags back in Saturday’s 137th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Matz will still have a runner in the race in longshot Teeth of the Dog for owner Jose Singer.

Meanwhile, Union Rags will be pointed to the June 9 Belmont Stakes, where he almost certainly will be the first or second choice. When things have gone right, Union Rags has displayed brilliance, such as in last fall’s Champagne and the Fountain of Youth in February.

Regarding the Derby, Matz tried not to be overly critical of Leparoux, but said he and his assistant, Peter Brette, emphasized the necessity to get out of the gate well from post 4.

“Who am I to tell Julien Leparoux how to ride horses? Maybe Peter [can] because Peter’s ridden races, but we both stressed you’ve got to get out of there,” Matz said. “He outbroke Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby . . . I would have thought he could outbreak Dullahan. Whether the horse was flat- footed, maybe he didn’t have him ready, I don’t know what the situation was.”

Matz said he and Wyeth will wait until after Saturday’s Preakness is run to decide whether to make a rider change on Union Rags for the Belmont. There is no shortage of wannabe replacements.

Matz said he has heard from “seven or eight” agents, including Matt Muzikar, who represents Javier Castellano, who rode Union Rags as a 2-year-old but who chose Algorithms over Union Rags for the Fountain of Youth in February. Algorithms was scratched the morning of the race, while Union Rags romped to a four-length victory under Leparoux.

What frustrates Matz the most about the Kentucky Derby and the Florida Derby – in which Union Rags finished third behind Take Charge Indy – was that his horse never had “a fair chance to let him show what kind of horse he really is.”

Matz hopes that the Belmont and the summer races like the Travers will allow for that to happen.

“I just hope he can rebound and have a good year,” Matz said.

Meanwhile, Matz has spent the last 10 days preparing Teeth of the Dog for the Preakness. On Tuesday, with rain turning the Fair Hill main track into a sealed, sloppy mess, Teeth of the Dog galloped 1 1/4 miles over the Tapeta surface.

After winning a maiden race at Gulfstream on Feb. 4 – in which he beat Went the Day Well – Teeth of the Dog finished third in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial behind Gemologist and Alpha.

Matz said if it were up to him, he would have run Teeth of the Dog in last Saturday’s Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont.

“But I don’t feel it’s wrong what he’s doing,” Matz said of owner Jose Singer’s decision to run in the Preakness. “He wants to go there. I think if he’s improved from his last one I think he could be right there and if he is right there then I would have made the wrong move.”

With Teeth of the Dog, Matz wonders if his horse is “good enough” to compete with I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister, the one-two finishers from the Derby. The horse Matz knows is good enough will be in the barn on Saturday awaiting his day for redemption.

“I just think our plan didn’t work with what we wanted for him,” Matz said. “Now we have to make the next best plan for the long run.”

In other Preakness developments:

◗ Also at Fair Hill, Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher Went the Day Well galloped 1 1/2 miles over the Tapeta surface. Though Went the Day Well won the Spiral Stakes over Turfway’s synthetic surface, he had never trained over the Tapeta, a surface over which he looked quite comfortable.

Trainer Graham Motion continues to be amazed at how Went the Day Well is doing considering his hard race in the Derby.

“I don’t know how he’s going to run on Saturday but to me he’s given me every indication that he’s great,” Motion said.

Due to the wet weather conditions, Motion elected to keep Went the Day Well at Fair Hill one more day rather than ship to Pimlico on Tuesday as originally scheduled.

◗ Trainer Steve Asmussen confirmed Tuesday that Daddy Nose Best, 10th in the Kentucky Derby, would run in the Preakness.

Asmussen said he would reunited with Leparoux, who guided Daddy Nose Best to victories in the El Camino Real and Sunland Park derbies. Garrett Gomez rode Daddy Nose Best in the Derby.

◗ With rain pounding this area throughout Tuesday morning, Doug O’Neill chose to keep I’ll Have Another under his Pimlico shed row, having the Derby winner hand-walked for some 30 minutes around the barn at about 7 a.m. O’Neill has been extremely pleased with the colt’s looks and his training since they arrived here two days after the colt won the Kentucky Derby, and the trainer said skipping a day of racetrack work was no big deal at all.

“He’s so fit, he’s doing so well, I just decided to walk all the horses this morning,” he said. “I’m glad I did. We all enjoy a day off from time to time.”

I’ll Have Another had been putting in very strong gallops daily, and O’Neill said he intended to resume that routine Wednesday.

◗ Pretension was confirmed as a starter for the Preakness early Tuesday by trainer Chris Grove, one of the perennial leading trainers on the Maryland circuit. Grove said he is satisfied with how Pretension, a New York-bred based at the Bowie training center, had trained since posting an 8-1 victory in the May 5 Canonero II Stakes at Pimlico.

Pretension is owned by the Kidwells Petite Stable of Irving Kidwell and is one of two local horses set to go in the Preakness. Kidwell, 87, has been experiencing medical issues and was hospitalized earlier in the week.

“I think the delay in the decision came down to that [Kidwell] didn’t want to run if he wasn’t going to be there,” said Grove.

The other local horse in the Preakness is Tiger Walk, owned by Sagamore Farm and trained by Ignacio Correas IV.

◗ Bob Baffert, who already has Bodemeister as the Preakness favorite, declared Liaison from consideration from the Preakness on Monday afternoon after consulting with owner Arnold Zetcher. Baffert said he has the Belmont Stakes or the Californian at Betfair Hollywood Park in mind for Liaison, who was sixth in the Derby.

◗ Optimizer arrived at Pimlico late Tuesday afternoon by van for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

– additional reporting by Marty McGee and Byron King