11/02/2011 5:55PM

Breeders' Cup: Union Rags puts Matz in familiar spot

Barbara D. Livingston
Union Rags, winner of the Saratoga Special and Champagne, has never raced around two turns or as far as the 1 1/16 miles of the BC Juvenile. “I don’t think two turns is a problem,” said trainer Michael Matz, here with the colt Tuesday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It was a little more than five years ago that trainer Michael Matz led an unbeaten colt to Churchill Downs in a quest for greatness, and the horse, the ill-fated Barbaro, fulfilled expectations, decisively winning the 2006 Kentucky Derby in what would be the final victory of his short career.

Sadly, as few racing fans can forget, the colt would succumb in January of the following year following complications from a shattered hind leg he suffered in the 2006 Preakness.

Now Matz is back under the historic Twin Spires of Churchill Downs with another unbeaten colt: Champagne winner Union Rags, who, like Barbaro, has the opportunity to establish himself as the nation’s best, this time in Saturday’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The task is far from easy against a field of 12 opponents who represent the elite of the male 2-year-old division. Besides Union Rags, the race drew four other Grade or Group 1 winners – Breeders’ Futurity winner Dullahan; Crusade, winner of the Middle Park Stakes in Britain; Del Mar Futurity winner Drill; and Norfolk winner Creative Cause.

No horse, however, has the résumé to match Union Rags, who after winning a five-furlong debut race at Delaware Park, went on to capture the Grade 2 Saratoga Special at 6 1/2 furlongs before his victory in the one-mile Champagne.

The form from the Champagne has held up, with a pair of off-the-board finishers winning their next starts.

The chief uncertainty with Union Rags is inexperience. The colt has never raced around two turns or as far as 1 1/16 miles, the distance of the Juvenile.

Matz believes Union Rags will be more effective the farther he runs. “I don’t think two turns is a problem,” he said.

Union Rags is a son of Dixie Union out of the Gone West mare Tempo. But while many Gone West mares drop stayers and middle-distance runners, Union Rags’s siblings have largely been sprinters. The average winning distance of all foals out of Tempo is just 6.3 furlongs.

Matz is uncertain where jockey Javier Castellano will have Union Rags placed in the early stages of the Juvenile, noting that the colt’s running style has differed with each race, depending on traffic issues and other circumstances.

“I think whatever it presents, he’ll handle it, either close to the front end or behind,” he said. “I think he’s a winner. And I hope he doesn’t prove me wrong on Saturday.”

If there is one thing that appears clear in the Juvenile, it is who will be the likely pacesetter. The speedy Hansen, a runaway winner of a maiden race and the Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway, has run off to commanding early leads in his pair of races – large margins he has maintained or extended to the finish.

With so much on the line in the Juvenile, his connections opted to change riders, replacing regular jockey Victor Lebron with Ramon Dominguez, last year’s Eclipse Award-winning rider.

“Obviously he is having another great year,” said trainer Mike Maker. “I expect he’ll fit the horse very well.”

Hansen and six other entrants are shifting surfaces to dirt after having last raced on synthetic or turf tracks.

Only three runners – Creative Cause and longshots Fort Loudon and Speightscity – have won going two turns on dirt.

Speightscity, in what is a rarity for a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race, is actually cutting back in distance after winning a 1 1/8-mile maiden race at Saratoga Sept. 2.

Breeders' Cup Juvenile: Get graded entries, comments by Mike Watchmaker, and more

Despite not having raced since and missing the Champagne due to an injured foot, his ever-confident trainer Gary Contessa is excited about how his colt is approaching the race.

“He’s got the longest reach of any horse I’ve trained in my life - he just gobbles up ground,” he said.

Two Juvenile entrants will have equipment changes: Drill, the Norfolk runner-up, is having blinkers removed, and Optimizer, the third-place finisher from the Breeders’ Futurity, is adding blinkers.

Meanwhile, the uncoupled Aidan O’Brien-trained European representatives, Crusade and Daddy Long Legs, will both race with Lasix for the first time.

BREEDERS’ CUP SATURDAY: Streaming video and live chat on DRF.com

Union Rags
M. Matz
J. Castellano 92, 95, 66 Most impressive winning the Champagne and should route; the one to beat 5-2
B. Baffert
M. Garcia 78, 90, 76 No match for Creative Cause in Norfolk, but gets better pace set up this time 5-1
Creative Cause
M. Harrington
J. Rosario 84, 88, 88 Clear win in Norfolk, the only major two-turn dirt prep, albeit with easy trip 9-2
D. Romans
K. Desormeaux 85, 76, 73 Closer got maiden win on Poly in Breeders' Futurity; should be rolling late 8-1
M. Maker
R. Dominguez 80, 89 Don't know how good he is, but he set a wicked pace at TP, and still romped 12-1
Daddy Long Legs
A. O'Brien
R. Moore n/a, n/a, n/a Strong Group 2 score in his last and his pedigree suggest he will take to dirt 10-1
A. O'Brien
J. Leparoux n/a, n/a, n/a Recently upset a Gr. 1 at Newmarket and also has some dirt in his pedigree 12-1
D. W. Lukas
R. Albarado 82, 79, 81 Raced on turf before the Poly Breeders' Fururity; tough spot to make dirt bow 20-1
K. McLaughlin
G. Gomez 82, 84 No match for 'Rags' at Belmont; lots of room to improve, but he'll have to 20-1
Take Charge Indy
P. Byrne
J. Graham 78, 85, 84 This will be his dirt debut; wasn't crazy how he gave ground late in last two 20-1
Fort Loudon
S. Gold
L. Jurado 76, 70, 76 Swept the Florida Stallion Series at Calder, but he hasn't run fast enough yet 20-1
M. Casse
L. Contreras 72, 64, 49 Won a two-turn stakes at WO on Poly; dirt a question and his Beyers are low 20-1
G. Contessa
C. Nakatani 80, 55 Romped in nine furlong maiden race at Saratoga; hasn't been seen since 30-1