07/12/2012 3:45PM

Hovdey: Matz soldiers on with Colonial Flag in American Oaks

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Barbara D. Livingston
Michael Matz (center) looks over Union Rags during the week prior to the Belmont Stakes.

It came as a slim ray of welcome news to Michael Matz at the end of a long, draining day: Union Rags had tested clean for frog juice after his seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.

The cloud was lifted, such as it was, manufactured by a public relations stunt courtesy of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which announced Wednesday that all Kentucky Derby and Oaks starters had tested negative for dermorphin.

Matz had to laugh, but it was one of those cold, mirthless laughs tempered by the reality at hand, that his 2012 Belmont Stakes winner had been diagnosed with an injury that would prevent Union Rags from completing what could have been a memorable 3-year-old campaign.

“It’s been one of those years,” Matz said. “One minute you’re on top of the world, and the next day you’re looking up at it.”

Undaunted, Matz is diving right back into the deep end of the pool Saturday with the upwardly mobile Colonial Flag in the $350,000 American Oaks at Betfair Hollywood Park. The daughter of Pleasant Tap is a $475,000 yearling owned by Skara Glen Stable, William Farish, and ENL Stables. Because Colonial Flag also is a half-sister to Shared Account, winner of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf for Graham Motion, the 10 furlongs of the American Oaks should be right up her alley.

Several of the other fillies in the nine-strong field can boast similar inclinations. Mi Gi Gi, winner of the Honeymoon at Hollywood, is out of a mare by Sadler’s Wells, and all he did was sire High Chaparral, Montjeu, Galileo, and Yeats. Regalo Mia is by the Sadler’s Wells stallion Sligo Bay out of a daughter of Preakness winner Red Bullet, while Left a Message boasts an up-close cross of Gone West and Deputy Minister.

Such pedigrees will only get a filly so far, though, until training, experience and racing luck takes over. Colonial Flag comes to town with just four races to her name, but her most recent effort – a stubborn second in the June 16 Regret Stakes at Churchill Downs – puts her in the thick of the American Oaks mix.

“We thought we’d get her going as a 2-year-old, but never quite got there,” said Matz, who was on the scene at Hollywood on Thursday morning. “She’s a very big filly and just needed to fill out a little bit more. Graham told me Shared Account was very much the same way.”

Only in America does a trainer need to explain why a 3-year-old of proven ability was not on display as a 2-year-old, as if there is something suspicious going on for arriving so late at the dance. In the case of Colonial Flag, the explanation is transparent. By both inclination and patronage, Matz prefers to play the long game, and so far he has made it work. There are a lot of ways to describe the trainer – forthright, self-deprecating, well-tanned – but “in a hurry” is not one of them.

“I guess you’ll find that I don’t lean very hard toward running early 2-year-olds, or even sprinters for that matter,” Matz said. “I don’t know if it’s a fault of mine or what, but I do sort of enjoy having horses in two-turn races. Then again, maybe I’m just not that good at it.”

The record says Matz should stick with his comfort zone. In the 15 years since he turned from his show-jumping career to training Thoroughbred race horses, he has somehow managed to win a Kentucky Derby, a Florida Derby, a Belmont, an Arlington Million, and a Breeders’ Cup Distaff, among others.

“I do know when I look for yearlings at sales I look for horses who will go a distance,” Matz noted. “In the end, the horse will tell you what it wants to do, and you just have to work that way.”

Colonial Flag told Matz she was not ready to run until January 2012, when she came out in a maiden race on the Gulfstream Park grass. The filly had enough trouble to discourage an older horse that day, so Matz took a step back and did not run her again until April at Keeneland, where she edged the equally promising Centre Court from the Rusty Arnold barn.

Those two tangled again in the nine-furlong Regret, when Centre Court held off Colonial Flag to win by a length. The Matz filly showed her lack of seasoning that day, overreacting at one point deep in the stretch when she shied from her opponent’s proximity. But there was no quit in Colonial Flag, and the two fillies shaded 36 seconds for their final three-eighths of a mile.

“She’s a very nice filly to be around,” Matz said. “We’ve had the American Oaks in mind for her for some time.”

As for Union Rags, Matz had spent the previous two days dealing with the hard facts of a minor injury with major implications, much like the one that retired dual classic winner I’ll Have Another.

“He has an old splint on that leg,” Matz said, referring to the growing pain type of ailment Union Rags had at the end of his 2-year-old campaign. “There was a little fluid, so we gave him some bute to see if he might have banged it. The next day it was completely normal, so I didn’t think it was anything. Then when it filled up a little again I said let’s do an ultrasound.

“What we came up with is a very small core lesion,” Matz continued. “Where it is in the suspensory ligament doesn’t affect any of the branches. All of the veterinarians said the prognosis is good for him to come back. They are saying six months, at the longest, and he could start jogging again.”

No decision will be made right away about Union Rags making a comeback, but Matz has already cast his vote. As far as the trainer was concerned, the sky was the limit for the colt, whose 2012 dance card included the Haskell Invitational, the Travers, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“I was sure looking forward to at least trying him in those races,” Matz said. “I truly hope there is a chance we’ll see him as a 4-year-old. As big and as strong as he is, I don’t see why he wouldn’t be a very good older horse.”

Here’s hoping.