02/29/2012 12:16PM

Jerardi: Union Rags the latest Kentucky Derby contender to have Pennsylvania ties

Barbara D. Livingston
Union Rags showed in this Fountain of Youth win that he has the ability to follow in the foosteps of Barbaro, Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones.

Time is up for the rest of the country. After dominating the Triple Crown from 2004 to 2006 (winning five of seven races with a second and a third from the 2004 Kentucky Derby through the 2006 Derby), Pennsylvania paused to collect slots cash and revel in Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Barbaro.

Well, Pennsylvania is back with Union Rags. Owner Phyllis Wyeth’s farm at Point Lookout, straddling Delaware and Pennsylvania, overlooks the meandering Brandywine Creek, which runs behind the nearby Brandywine River Museum, home to the art of three generations of Wyeths, including Phyllis’s husband, Jamie.

Union Rags’s trainer, Michael Matz, lives not far away in another part of Pennsylvania’s Chester County, southwest of Philadelphia, where the horse country could be mistaken for Kentucky if one did not know where one was.

It is still two months until the Derby, but Matz has been saying for months that he would not trade places with anyone. And, after watching Union Rags dominate Sunday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes, why would he want to?

Is Union Rags of the caliber of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Barbaro? Time will tell, but the early returns are impossible to ignore.
Union Rags was a top 2-year-old who, after a 4-month layoff, duplicated that 2011 form on the last Sunday of February. Matz said after the race he was concerned he had not done enough with the colt. Turned out he got it just right.

The trainer tried to lighten expectations, saying the first race was part of a process to get Union Rags, like Barbaro, to peak at Churchill Downs. If that was prep, what might the real thing look like?

In a year with a lot of speedy contenders (Hansen and Secret Circle among others), imagine how Union Rags might finish when he gets a hot, contested pace in front of him. The colt got no pace to run at in the Fountain of Youth and still inhaled the field.

When you look at Union Rags, you see this massive (17 hands) animal that is equal parts cool and competitive. Loved how when a horse came outside him on the backstretch, Union Rags just let it happen, waiting for Julien Leparoux to say it was time. Matz described Union Rags last year as having better “table manners” than Barbaro, who just wanted to run. And did – fast.

Speaking of Leparoux, Matz told me he wanted Leparoux when he decided to run Union Rags in the Saratoga Special. The rider, however, already had a commitment to ride Maan for Eddie Kenneally. At that point, Maan, like Union Rags, had run just once, winning his maiden at Churchill Downs on July 3.

Maan was entered and scratched from the Sanford, but was not entered in the Special. So, Leparoux missed out on Union Rags in August.

Interestingly, Maan, with Rajiv Maragh, is entered to run in Saturday’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. The colt did not run since that first race until winning an optional claimer at Gulfstream on Feb. 9.

When Javier Castellano decided to ride Algorithms Sunday, Matz and Leparoux finally got together. Leparoux was at Palm Meadows Monday morning hanging out with Union Rags and his trainer. Leparoux is not going anywhere.

Now that Algorithms is off the Triple Crown trail, you realize once again how quickly these jockey decisions can blow up. I get that Castellano wanted to keep trainer Todd Pletcher happy, but Union Rags had shown so much in 2011. Why change?

Whatever, Leparoux, a very quiet rider, appears to fit his very relaxed mount perfectly. And he knew Sunday was just a prep, so he geared the colt down in the final yards. There will be a race where he will need to see how fast Union Rags can run. Could be the March 31 Florida Derby or the Kentucky Derby. Who isn’t looking forward to that?

Union Rags has shown something different in each of his races, winning from the back in his five-furlong debut, winning up top when he had the rail in the Special, overcoming a strange trip in the Champagne with a late explosion, just missing in the Breeders’ Cup after a giant, wide move, and then winning with total ease in the Fountain of Youth.

Notice how Union Rags broke in front of the field Sunday. This horse was eager to run, but not anxious. There is a significant difference.

Like those other Pennsylvania horses, Union Rags gives a big effort every time. There is none of this one good race, followed by a bad one. Every race is memorable.

So, the rest of you had your moment with Mine That Bird and Super Saver, Derby winners that never won again. Pennsylvania is back and it is very serious, just like Union Rags.