02/24/2012 4:29PM

Crist: All eyes on Union Rags's return in Fountain of Youth

Barbara D. Livingston
Union Rags will make his first start since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his 3-year-old debut in Sunday’s Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

On a February weekend unusually chock full of appearances by 2011 Eclipse Award winners and contenders – Amazombie, Awesome Maria, Perfect Shirl, Royal Delta, and The Factor are all making their 2012 debuts – the unveiling of greatest interest will come Sunday when Union Rags makes his first start as a 3-year-old in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.

It will be Union Rags’s first race since that excruciating (if you bet him at 11-10) and exhilarating (if you backed Hansen at 7-1) Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5, when Union Rags loomed like a winner at the top of the stretch but still fell just short at the wire. The length of Hansen’s white head cost Union Rags the 2-year-old championship and his unbeaten status, but not the mantle of winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby. In the first round of Derby Futures betting that closed Feb. 12, Union Rags was the 8-1 favorite among individual betting interests, with Hansen largely dismissed at 26-1 after losing his seasonal bow by five lengths to Algorithms in the Holy Bull on Jan. 29.

[MORE: Watch the Fountain of Youth LIVE on DRF.com]

Hansen, who returns next Saturday in the Gotham at Aqueduct, probably shouldn’t have blown out all the way to 26-1 off a performance possibly compromised by a stumbling start and a wet track, but the result raised questions about both Hansen and Union Rags – as did the defeat of the Juvenile’s third-place finisher, Creative Cause, who was just a length behind them at Churchill and then ran third as the odds-on favorite in a four-horse San Vicente last Sunday. Those two results made Union Rags’s Juvenile – failling a head short of catching Hansen, while beating Creative Cause by only a length – seem less impressive than it did 90 days ago.

Nor was it inspiring to see Javier Castellano abandon Union Rags to keep the mount on Algorithms in the Fountain of Youth. There are extraneous explanations for this, primarily that in the long run it pays to stay loyal to the Todd Pletcher-trained armada of stakes horses such as Algorithms instead of spurning them for the smaller Michael Matz-trained string. Still, it is one of the earliest desertions of a winter-book Derby favorite by a jockey in recent memory.

Algorithms is the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the Fountain of Youth, with Union Rags the 2-1 second choice and Pletcher-trained Discreet Dancer 3-1. The three favorites have made all but one of their combined nine career starts under Catellano, but Union Rags switches to Julien Leparoux and John Velazquez picks up the mount on Discreet Dancer.

Questions surround them all, which is as it should be the last weekend in February.

The two Pletcher trainees are a combined 5 for 5, but both will be trying two turns and racing beyond a mile for the first time. Algorithms is by Bernardini, but his two best-known siblings, Keyed Entry and Justin Phillip, were sprinters. Discreet Dancer is by the miler Discreet Cat, and his dam’s only other foal to race was the sprinter Travelin Man. There’s plenty of quality in those pedigrees, but some legit warning signs about negotiating 10 furlongs 10 weeks hence.

It will be fascinating to see how Union Rags fares against the two Pletcher colts, who need only travel 8 1/2 furlongs Sunday and over a track on which they have already turned in big efforts at a mile. It may also be worth keeping in mind that while Matz has been bullish on how Union Rags has grown up from 2 to 3 and trained for this, he is unlikely to have him tightly wound for his season debut. When Matz was on the Derby trail with Barbaro six years ago, he had the colt just good enough to win his two Derby preps narrowly – against arguably weaker competition than Union Rags faces Sunday – but primed for a huge forward move and a truly sensational performance on Derby Day.

Regardless of how strong a race the Juvenile turns out to be and what becomes of Hansen and Creative Cause, there’s plenty to like about Union Rags. His three victories before the Breeders’ Cup were stronger and more interesting than the raw data might suggest, displaying an unusual range of abilities. In his debut at Delaware Park, he stormed from seventh place in a five-furlong dash to win going away with a strong final furlong. In the Saratoga Special, he broke sharply from the rail, won an early pace skirmish, and drew off by himself in the slop. In the Champagne at Belmont, he was squeezed twice, waited, and regrouped, and won off like a professional older horse.

That’s quite a toolbox full of moves for a 2-year-old and why I’m so eager to see what the 3-year-old Union Rags looks like, starting Sunday at Gulfstream.