02/26/2012 5:51PM

Gulfstream: If the Fountain of Youth was a prep, what can Union Rags really do?

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Michael Matz has said all along that he was using Sunday’s Grade 2 Fountain of Youth as a prep for Union Rags, just the first step on the road to having him ready to peak on Kentucky Derby Day. And in light of his performance in his 3-year-old debut, one can only imagine what Union Rags might be ready to accomplish when he’s completely fit and at his best.

Union Rags made a shambles of the mile and one-sixteenth Fountain of Youth, drawing off to an extremely impressive four-length victory over News Pending that was even easier than the final margin might suggest.  The performance clearly establishes Union Rags, who had not started since suffering his only setback in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile nearly four months earlier, as the current Kentucky Derby favorite.                                                   

The Fountain of Youth had been billed as a match between the two leading Derby contenders, Union Rags and the undefeated Algorithms. Unfortunately that meeting never took place. Algorithms had to be scratched from the race after being diagnosed with a splint injury earlier in the day.

Union Rags was ridden for the first time on Sunday by Julien Leparoux. He replaced Javier Castellano, who earlier this month opted to keep his regular seat aboard Algorithms in the Fountain of Youth.

Union Rags broke alertly and settled in perfect position off the early pace of the 4-5 favorite and previously undefeated Discreet Dancer, who was pressed by News Pending through fractions of 24.50 seconds and 48.11 for the opening quarter- and half-mile. Union Rags readily overtook the leaders while racing three wide leaving the quarter pole, quickly drew off, and was never extended through the final furlong.

News Pending rushed up outside horses to join for command entering the backstretch and held on willingly once displaced by the winner, finishing 2 1/4 lengths clear of  Discreet Dancer who raced in what appeared to be the deeper going on Sunday along the rail. Neck ‘n Neck rallied to finish fourth after steadying sharply on the opening bend. Fort Loudon, Csaba, and Casual Trick completed the order of finish.

Union Rags is owned by Phyllis Wyeth’s Chadds Ford Stable. He completed the distance in 1:42.68 over the fast track and returned $4.40.

“I’m just so happy right now,” Matz said immediately after the race. “Julien said he didn’t even touch him with the whip. He did everything on his own. And when he said it was ‘time to go’ he [Union Rags] said okay and just went beautifully. He’s such a smart horse, so easy on himself for such a big horse. I didn’t know after four months if he could do this. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Matz said the next stop for Union Rags, as has been the plan all winter, will be the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles here on March 31.