Updated on 03/01/2012 3:52PM

Gulfstream: Union Rags standing tall after Fountain of Youth triumph

Bob Coglianese
Union Rags coasts to victory under Julien Leparoux in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26, 2012.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.- Union Rags stood in his paddock located behind the barn area at Palm Meadows training center early Monday morning vigorously attacking a flake of hay while his trainer, Michael Matz, looked on. It may be one of the last peaceful moments the pair will get to spend between now and Kentucky Derby day.

Union Rags thrust himself squarely into the eye of the media storm sure to follow his every move during the next nine weeks after opening his 3-year-old campaign with a sensational four-length victory over News Pending in Sunday’s Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The final margin of victory was not a true indication of Union Rags’ dominance in a race Matz had picked out as merely a prep towards his ultimate goal on the first Saturday of May.

“You never know what to expect after being away four months, but I couldn’t have asked for things to have gone any better than they did on Sunday,” Matz said. “I wasn’t surprised he ran well, what surprised me was that he did it so easily.”

Union Rags, who received a 95 Beyer Speed Figure for the Fountain of Youth, was ridden for the first time by Julien Leparoux.

“Julien said he never hit him with the stick,” said Matz. “He said he relaxed well and when he asked him to run, he ran. It’s not too complicated. And he galloped out strong. He really only ran the last quarter-mile, if that, and from the looks of him today the race doesn’t appear to have taken anything out of him.”

Matz said he has definitely noticed a change in Union Rags since he suffered his only defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“You can certainly see a change in him from 2 to 3,” said Matz. “He’s more mature and he’s grown. He’s 17 hands now.”

Matz said he sees no reason not to stick to his original plan and bring Union Rags back in the $1 million Florida Derby on March 31.

“The timing is real good, and with these two races in him, we certainly won’t be over-racing him going into the Kentucky Derby,” Matz said. “He’ll go back to the track to jog on Wednesday, have a day off Thursday, and then start galloping again Friday. He’ll probably have a maintenance work in about two weeks and maybe one more before the Florida Derby. I really don’t need to do too much with him now. We just needed to get by this first one.”

Trainer Dale Romans said he couldn’t be happier with the performance of News Pending, who turned in a strong effort easily to easily finish second in the Fountain of Youth.

“We were expecting him to improve. He’s been training like a horse ready for his break out race, and I thought he ran very well,” said Romans. “I’m not sure what we’ll do next, but there’s a good chance he’ll come back in the Florida Derby. I’ll sit down with the owners over the weekend, and in the end it will be Seth’s decision where we’ll go.”

News Pending is owned by Seth Klarman and William Lawrence.

Todd Pletcher said he was disappointing in the performance of the previously undefeated Discreet Dancer, who finished a tiring third after setting the pace for the opening six furlongs of the Fountain of Youth.

“I can’t make much excuse for him,” said Pletcher. “We got the pace we were looking for and the trip we were looking for. He just came up empty. I could see him losing to Union Rags, but I didn’t expect him to throw in the towel that quickly. We’ll just have to regroup before deciding what to do next.”

Pletcher also said there was no change Monday in the condition of his undefeated Algorithms, who was scratched from the Fountain of Youth after popping a splint on Saturday. He said no decision regarding his immediate future would be made until later in the week.

Trainer Ian Wilkes said he felt his Neck ‘n Neck would improve off his troubled fourth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth. Neck ‘n Neck had to steady sharply on the clubhouse turn and did not corner all that well coming into the stretch.

“He’s still a little green and making mistakes, but I was happy with his race and he’ll learn from the experience,” said Wilkes. “You can’t make those types of mistakes against good horses, although even without any mistakes we couldn’t have beaten Michael’s horse if we rode in the back of a truck.”

Wilkes said the Florida Derby would be “a consideration” for Neck ‘n Neck’s next start.

Trainer Nick Zito reported Monday that Casual Trick, who finished seventh in the Fountain of Youth, displaced his palate during the race will require minor throat surgery. Zito said Casual Trick also displaced during his previous race.

"It's a mechanical issue that needs to be fixed," said Zito. "It's a minor procedure, and he should be back to the track shortly."

The weekend wasn’t a total loss for Pletcher’s Derby hopefuls. On Saturday, he sent out El Padrino to a game decision over Mark Valeski in the Grade 2 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds. El Padrino received a Beyer Figure of 98 for his performance in the Risen Star.

“I thought he ran very well, it was a good effort, especially considering it was a speed-favoring track there Saturday,” said Pletcher. “We’ll play it by ear with him regarding what’s next. The obvious options would be to go back to the Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby, keep him here for the Florida Derby or even go to the Wood. We’ll see how things shape up, but it probably would make more sense for us to run where he would be the favorite for $1 million rather than be the second choice for $1 million.”

Trainer Larry Jones said Mark Valeski came back from the Risen Star "really good" and that the Louisiana Derby is "definitely the number-one priority for him."

Jones said that Lecomte winner Mr. Bowling, who finished a distant 11th in the Risen Star, also came out of the race in good shape.

"We're looking at the race as a throw out race for him," said Jones. "We sure feel a whole lot better today. We think we've got it figured out."

Z Dager, a distant third in the Risen Star, is also likely to return in the Louisiana Derby on April 1.

– additional reporting by Jay Privman