Updated on 07/20/2012 8:35AM

Hovdey: Matz seeking a 'clean shot' for Union Rags in Belmont Stakes

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Michael Matz is hoping to see Union Rags rebound from a pair of disappointing starts.

Michael Matz does not want to win the 144th Belmont Stakes with Union Rags, the Kentucky Derby's seventh-place finisher, just so he can say, “I told you so.”

On the contrary, Michael Matz wants to win the Belmont Stakes with Union Rags to be able to say, with absolute conviction, “I told me so.”

In the broad strokes of an extraordinary life, Matz has managed to do okay under pressure, sometimes with the whole world watching. U.S. Olympian. Heroic plane crash survivor. Kentucky Derby winner. Husband and father.

[BELMONT STAKES: Past performances, video updates, contender profiles, odds]

For all that, Matz awakens each morning as a Thoroughbred trainer with the attendant woes, which is why he still wears that haunted trainer’s look of “what happened” when he confronts the gaping chasm between the expectations this spring for Union Rags and the reality of his crushing defeats, first in the Florida Derby and then in the Kentucky Derby.

“I really thought this horse could win a Triple Crown,” Matz said late Wednesday morning, shortly after bringing Union Rags to Belmont Park. “But everything went the wrong way.”

Union Rags was favored to win the Kentucky Derby almost from the moment he was narrowly beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at Churchill Downs. He added weight to that status with an easy win against a small field in the Fountain of Youth, but then ran into troubled trips in Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.

Because the colt was unable to overcome the unforeseen, it has has become tempting to think of Union Rags as an entitled pretty boy who needs a path strewn with flowers before he can get the job done. Matz disagrees, but understands.

“It’s sort of sad, but maybe in a good way, that he did get a little bit forgotten,” Matz said. “He won the Fountain of Youth so easily, then it’s been one thing after another since.”

Matz was speaking outside the Belmont Stakes detention barn, where he’d just bedded down Union Rags after a van ride of about 3 1/2 hours from the Fair Hill training center in northern Maryland.

“When he won the Champagne here last fall, we shipped up the morning of the race,” Matz noted. “That seemed to go okay.”

It was an impressive performance, as good as a 2-year-old can run and coming on the heels of a victory in the Saratoga Special.

All that was a distant then. Now, Union Rags is fighting to regain his lofty reputation. Quite by chance, Matz has ended up falling into a pattern that has worked well in recent years – finishing out of the money in the Derby and then waiting for the Belmont.

Commendable was 17th in the 2000 Kentucky Derby, sat out the Preakness, then won a Belmont bereft of both Derby winner Fusiachi Pegasus and Preakness winner Red Bullet.

Birdstone finished eighth in the 2004 Kentucky Derby, skipped the Preakness, then beat Smarty Jones going for the Triple Crown in the Belmont.

In 2006, Jazil ran fourth in Barbaro’s Derby, stayed in the barn for the Preakness, then emerged to beat a Belmont Stakes field minus the injured Barbaro as well as Preakness winner Bernardini.

And in 2009, it was Summer Bird who ran a distant sixth to Mine That Bird in the Derby, passed the Preakness, then came back to beat Mine That Bird in New York.

None of those Belmont winners, though, was as highly touted as Union Rags. And nothing the colt has done since the Derby has led Matz to believe Union Rags did not deserve the praise.

“I don’t think the last couple races have been a fair run for the horse,” Matz said. “Whether it was the jockey, the trainer, or just bad luck.”

Matz is not a hundred percent certain that the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont is the place to start the rehabilitation of the Union Rags brand. The distance is foreign territory to all the horses involved, giving rise to a chorus of breeding pundits whose confidence in their charts rivals that of the most convincing astrologers. Dixie Union, the sire of Union Rags, was a precocious 2-year-old and winner of the nine-furlong Haskell Invitational at 3 who was on his way to what promised to be a fine career as an older colt when he injured a tendon winning the Malibu Stakes.

“On his damside, his second and third dam were both mile and a halfers, so I think there’s a lot of distance pedigree in his female side,” Matz said of Union Rags as if there was something he could do about it now.

What he could do was shake up the mix, which he did in consultation with owner Phyllis Wyeth, replacing jockey Julien Leparoux with John Velazquez. Meanwhile, in his training since the Derby, Union Rags has continued to be the same energetic, social lad who seems to thrive on activity.

“He loves to be ridden, then be turned out a couple hours,” Matz noted. “He’ll just stand and watch other horses all day if you let him.”

There are several explanations as to why the Triple Crown is so difficult to win – only 10 times since 1919, when Sir Barton first turned the trick. Fresh colts of quality, like Union Rags, are one of the reasons.

Win or lose on Saturday, Matz simply hopes Union Rags gets a chance to show what he can do.

“I still think he’s a real good horse, and if I get beat fair and square, I’ll take my hat off to the horse who does it,” the trainer said. “Just give me a clean shot.”