06/15/2012 12:31PM

Breeder of Union Rags rewarded for good instincts, persistence

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Michael Amoruso
Owner Phyllis Wyeth, in the winner's circle following Union Rags's victory in the Belmont Stakes, authorized Russell Jones to spend $390,000 to reacquire the colt at an auction of 2-year-olds last year.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Union Rags’s Belmont Stakes victory last weekend was a long time coming for Phyllis Wyeth. It took her two human and three equine generations to put Union Rags and his owner-breeder into the Belmont Stakes winner’s circle. The trip wasn’t without complications, but the colt’s connections believe the classic result was written in both the genes and the stars.

“Phyllis had some premonitions about this,” said Russell Jones, Wyeth’s longtime friend and bloodstock advisor, and the man she appointed to speak for her after the Belmont. “And I don’t underestimate her intuition on this at all. She has good instincts.”

Union Rags’s family first crossed paths with Wyeth’s in 1964, when Wyeth’s mother, Alice du Pont Mills, went scouting for yearling fillies at Tattersalls and found Glad Rags II. Mills paid 6,800 guineas for Glad Rags II, a High Hat filly who turned out to be a smart buy for the family’s Hickory Tree racing string. Glad Rags II was Ireland’s champion juvenile filly and later won the 1966 1000 Guineas, and her value only grew after she retired to the breeding shed. Glad Rags II produced the Group 2-winning colt Gorytus and a pair of graded-winning fillies, Mirthful Flirt and Union Rags’s course record-setting granddam, the Nijinsky II mare Terpsichorist. Now, Mirthful Flirt and Terpsichorist are both second dams of Belmont Stakes winners; Mirthful Flirt’s grandson Colonial Affair won the race in 1993.

“She was a very good filly, and she really started something for the whole family,” Jones, 76, said of Glad Rags II.

Jones knows better than most what went into producing Union Rags. He was the one who first recommended that Wyeth send Terpsichorist’s daughter Tempo to Dixie Union.

“Tempo was a very interesting pedigree, because she was a daughter and granddaughter of two of the best mares that Mrs. Mills ever raced, but she was by Gone West, who was Jimmy Mills’s horse,” Jones explained. “So it was mother and father combined into one in Tempo, and that made Tempo even more special for Phyllis. I think it made her feel a greater responsibility to the family that good things happen to her.”

Wyeth first tried the match back in 2003, when Dixie Union stood for $30,000, and that first mating produced a nice stakes-placed gelding named Geefour.

“It was a good fit physically for the mare,” Jones said. “It tidied her up some, because she’s a big, rangy, scopey mare, not like her sire Gone West at all, but more like Nijinsky and her mother Terpsichorist. Dixie Union was more of a Northern Dancer/Dixieland Band type, a little bit lower to the ground, big hip. He had a ton of speed, which I think was the Capote coming out in him, because he was out of a Capote mare. It seemed like something between Dixie Union and Tempo was what we were aiming for. And Dixie Union was, I thought, a pretty sound horse. Tempo had only run a very few times. She was good, but she wasn’t very sound.

“So we did it the first time and got a beautiful colt, a knockout beautiful colt. That was Geefour. He was unsound in his airway. He just barely made the conditions of sale. But in spite of that impediment, the horse wasn’t any throwout as a racehorse. He placed in a Pennsylvania stakes and won just over $150,000. And the horse tried his heart out.

“So we thought, what if we got one that was okay in his wind? All we did was go back to the well.”

Wyeth paid $50,000 for the Dixie Union season in 2008 that created Union Rags. The colt has since proved priceless to her, but initially she was disappointed – not by the colt, but by his gender. Worried by Tempo’s earlier problematic labors and a persistently sore stifle, Wyeth had decided before Union Rags’s birth that the 2009 foal would be Tempo’s last. She desperately wanted that foal to be a filly that could help carry on the family.

“We called Phyllis and said, ‘The bad news is it’s a colt, and the good news is he’s really, really nice,’” said Braxton Lynch, who owns Royal Oak Farm in Paris, Ky., where Union Rags was born on March 3, 2009. “You could feel she was deflated. We told her, ‘You won’t be disappointed when you see him.’ ”

Wyeth was taken with Union Rags immediately and intended to keep him, until her accountant pressed her to sell, in order to shore up the breeding operation’s standing as a business, not a hobby. Wyeth unhappily complied, sent Union Rags to the paramount Sales agency, and sold him for $145,000 at Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga select yearling sale in August 2010. His buyer, IEAH Stable, pinhooked the colt to the Fasig-Tipton Florida juvenile sale seven months later.

“While she was satisfied with Union Rags’s sale at Saratoga, she did agonize about that horse getting away,” Russell said. “And when he came up in the 2-year-old sale, she said, ‘Do not go to that sale without looking at him. I need to know.’ And he blew me away. He was a kid when we sold him, and all of a sudden he was a strapping young man.”

Union Rags had spent the intervening seven months with yearling-to-juvenile resale specialist Eddie Woods in Ocala, Fla., where his breaking and training, Woods said, was “straightforward.”

“He was an easy horse to break and always had a lot of class and was a beautiful horse,” Woods said. “He was a big, happy, pleasant horse. He looked like he could really run, right from the get-go.”

“It was freaky,” Jones said of the auction, which took place March 3, 2011, Union Rags’s second birthday. Wyeth arbitrarily set Jones’s bidding limit at $390,000, and Jones got him on a single bid. “He was at $380,000, and I bid $390,000. She picked a number out of the air like that, and we got him.”

Union Rags’s path to the Belmont victory was unexpectedly complicated by poor trips and bad racing luck that dimmed his record with losses in three of his career’s biggest races. Unbeaten in his first three races, Union Rags got within a head of Hansen after a wide run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but that head made all the difference in championship voting. This year, he won the Fountain of Youth but finished third in the Florida Derby after being trapped behind runners early. The words “bumped,” “taken up,” and “squeezed” dominated descriptions of his seventh-place Kentucky Derby performance. After that, Wyeth and trainer Michael Matz called on jockey John Velazquez to replace Julien Leparoux, but, by Belmont Day, even some of the colt’s fans had begun to wonder whether Union Rags was genuine.

“It was sobering,” Jones said of Union Rags’s early mishaps this season. “We never thought we didn’t have a talented horse, but we were just afraid that there were more talented ones out there. When Johnny Velazquez came to Fair Hill to work the horse before the Belmont, it was real pick-me-up. It reminded me of seeing Union Rags at the 2-year-old sale, he went so effortlessly, and he went in 59 [seconds], which is crazy-fast time for Fair Hill. And Velazquez came back and said, ‘We’re live in the Belmont.’ ”

From a genetic point of view, Union Rags’s Belmont win makes good sense, Jones points out.

“With Dixie Union you get Northern Dancer on the top, Seattle Slew on the bottom, and when you look at the dam’s side you’ve got Secretariat, who sired the dam of Gone West, plus Nijinsky, who sired Terpsichorist, who was a graded winner at a mile and a half herself,” he said. “So there are Triple Crown influences throughout the pedigree.”

Tempo’s biggest hit as a broodmare was also her swan song. She is still around at age 20, though she is no longer at Wyeth’s Point Lookout Farm in Wilmington, Del.

“She’s got infirmities that come with age, but Phyllis has given her to a girl that used to work at Hickory Tree that runs a livery stable, and she’s the queen of that little stable,” said Jones. “They treat her like royalty. She’s turned out with other horses, and they make a big fuss over her. She can look across the valley and nearly pick out Point Lookout from where she grazes.”

Wyeth won’t get another Tempo foal, but the line may continue. Last April, Wyeth claimed back Tempo’s 2005 Cat Thief daughter, Miss Pauline, for $7,500 at Parx. She’s got a Jump Start filly by her side and currently is in foal to Hard Spun.

Given Wyeth’s luck with re-buying horses she has bred, that Miss Pauline might be a broodmare to watch.