Updated on 07/20/2012 9:35AM

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.”

Tom More than 1 year ago
Just 3 more hours to go and then Michael matz will shut his big mouth.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Great call Tom. Matz IS a modest guy.
Bsb Jaws More than 1 year ago
So now people that know something about breeding besides how to regurgitate a sires or dams name are equal to astrologists Jay ? No ! You're like the psychic network Jay & you are right just about as much as they are. I take that as a personal insult Jay because I know 10 times more about it than you or Mike MatZ. Some people don't need any inside connections to form an op[nion unlike yourself Jay. People like me Jay . That can make you look like pure Fluff. Which you are ! Thats nice . I like fluff. I don't like people that are clueless on a subject acting like they know what they're talking about. . I hate to agree with Andy ,Jay buttZ... you better dust off those tile laying tools. LOL.
[removed] More than 1 year ago
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MaryAnn Donahue More than 1 year ago
Michael Matz did not break Barbaro down. Why do you spew such venom?
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
He's by nothin', outa nothin, look beyond and DON'T step in it... Smells like puke.
Tom More than 1 year ago
Zero- The number of bloodline handicappers with a bet on Union Rags
BrassMonkyBalls More than 1 year ago
ok after he hangs again and likely finishes off the board I'm sure we'll get another round of whining. Fact is this horse is not very good. He has yet to top 95 Beyer...really? Enough already with this handsome colt who is just not fast enough in the afternoon. Its not his fault.....but the trainer and journalists need a reality check. Maybe later this year but he needs to pick it up already....95 top.....
Tom More than 1 year ago
Totally Agree--- Not good plus can't get the distance= no chance in the test of champions,,, Let the suckers waste their money on UR,, The IHA, Dullahan and long shot backers will be better rewarded
R. Martin More than 1 year ago
Two positive rider changes will resonate tomorrow. JL (A-) replaced by JV (A+) and KD (B) replaced by JC (A+) on U.R. and Dullahan respectively. JV & JC seldom make mistakes and rookies often do. Without question Super Mario (a truly likeable young man) will become an A+ jockey over time but, IMO, he is not there yet. I feel he is today a couple of notches short compared to JV or JC. I personally doubt we will have a Triple Crown winner in 2012.
Tom More than 1 year ago
simply put JC>JV>JL spells doom for UR
STEPHEN MERCIER More than 1 year ago
Belmont race 11 $1 tri: 5,11/1,3,4,5,9,11/1,3,4,5,9,10,11,12 = $60
"Roy Hobbs" More than 1 year ago
Tom More than 1 year ago
The wise guys are loving the talking up of the chances of Union Rags winning so they get better odds on horses with a chance like IHA and Dullahan. Union Rags is taking all the sucker money just as he did in the Derby. I would bet no one that works at DRF will have any of their hard earned money on UR if they choose to play with their real money in the belmont. They know just like any average handicapper knows UR Can't get the distance but they have a platform they can use the sucker people into betting UR and in turn get better odds for their wagers. No seems to be mentioning the biggest red flag for UR-- The jockey change--not JL losing his mount,,Not Johnny V aboard,,,,but the real first choice to replace JL would have been JJ. JJ is on Dullahan and chose Gemologist and Algorhtyms over UR previously. If Union Rags had a chance in the Belmont, rest assured Castenello would be back aboard! If this truly was a special horse, Castenello would have never let a mount of UR get away from him Five Sixteen has a better chance than UR for the love of god but UR should beat Optimizer for 2nd to last place so the UR fans won't have to settle for dead last
"Roy Hobbs" More than 1 year ago
Drugs are bad.
Marc Estrich More than 1 year ago
His female side lends the necessary stamina to a talented colt. I hope Johnny V can get him a clean trip so he can show his stuff.
Tom More than 1 year ago
The Northern Dancer or Mr. P side of his female side also on his male side. Gone West-6h in the Belmont (Cajun Beat-Spreighstown not exactly know for distance). Northern Dancer- Mr P all his pedigree,, That just shouts a mile in and half Are saying the Ninijinksy out of Northern Dancer is stamina I dont see this Marc,, Please state how you see stamina in UR's female side, I think your just saying throwing a statement out there about bloodlines when you know nothing about them. I seriously doubt any horse with double dose of Mr. P and Northern Dancer have ever won the Belmont. I can only find a handful of horses that won the belmont with 1 Mr. P or Northern Dancer, Union Rags has 4
Charles Turner More than 1 year ago
ur has really done much of nothing since that first race in florida. horses like him always fools people because he was passing tired horses in the derby. big deal!! he has a penchant for getting into trouble somewhere in a race. finally his breeding overwhelmingly says mile to 1 1/8. i'll put him 3rd or 4th depending on the bet.
Sean Ali More than 1 year ago
It's overwhelming if your glass is half empty. All you have to do is watch him run. ( and know what you're looking at !) His conformation is NOT typical Dixie Union. Even then DU won at 1 1/4 mi. Lots of stamina on his dams side. You guys talk about pedigree like it's an exact science, when it's really just a few steps above astrology.