10/09/2011 12:21PM

Belmont: Union Rags stirs up memories of Barbaro with Champagne victory

Barbara D. Livingston
Union Rags earned a 92 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in Saturday's Champagne.

Whenever trainer Michael Matz gets a good young horse, the comparisons to his 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro are inevitable.

Sunday morning, the day after Union Rags overcome significant trouble to win the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park, Matz, without prompting, brought up Barbaro’s name when discussing Union Rags.

 “The thing with Barbaro was he had such acceleration; when you asked him to accelerate he was three lengths on you,’’ Matz said. “I think this horse has the ability to do that also.

 “He still has a long way to go to compare to Barbaro,’’ Matz continued. “We’ll never know how great a horse Barbaro really was - that will always be the question that’s for sure.’’

 Barbaro won the first six starts of his career, including the Kentucky Derby by 6 1/2 lengths before he suffered a hind leg injury in the Preakness that ultimately led to his being euthanized eight months later.

 Matz noted that his assistant trainer, Peter Brette, was the exercise rider for both Barbaro and Union Rags.

 “Peter worked this horse the other day and he said this is a real nice horse,’’ Matz said. “He said Barbaro had so many gears to him. [Union Rags] needs to be tested a little bit more, that’s a part of it. We’ll find that out down the road.’’

 After winning his first three starts, the next stop down the road for Union Rags is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5. Union Rags earned an entry-fees paid trip to the Juvenile because the Champagne was a `Win and You’re In  race as part of the Breeders’ Cup program.

 Union Rags will likely be favored in the Juvenile based on his 3-for-3 record and the manner in which he won the Champagne. Caught in traffic down the backside and again approaching the stretch and having to alter course at the three-sixteenths pole, Union Rags powered home to win by 5 1/4 lengths. He ran a mile in 1:35.55 -.33 of a seconds slower than My Miss Aurelia’s winning time for the Grade 1 Frizette _ and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 92.

 “I was pretty pleased the way he handled himself when he had steadied and when he did really run,’’ Matz said. “I think they went that last three-eighths really fast. I think that’s a good situation. I was proud the way he galloped out. I don’t think distance is going to be a problem.’’

 By late Sunday morning, Matz hadn’t made it back to his base at the Fair Hill Training Center to check on Union Rags, but all the reports from Brette were that he came out of the race well.

 “I just talked to Peter and [Union Rags] just came in from the paddock, he’s been in there for two hours,’’ said Matz, who was in Princeton watching his children participate in a horse show. “He ate up everything last night and this morning and he came in looking for more to eat. He’s an amazing horse.’’

 Union Rags  is owned by long-time client Phyllis Wyeth, wife of famed artist Jamie Wyeth. Wyeth bought the horse back at a 2-year-old-in-training sale after selling him as a yearling.

 “He’s sort of a special horse right now,’’ Matz said. “We’re lucky to have him. It’s been a long time in between drinks but it sure tastes good.’’

 Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said Champagne runner-up Alpha came out of the race in good order and will be pointed to the Juvenile as well.

“He didn’t break real well, he kind of slipped a little bit behind, his head was going back and forth a lot before they kicked it,’’ McLaughlin said. “He broke poorly and took a lot of dirt. We’re happy he got up for second because the winner was the best and we were second best.’’