03/28/2012 11:02AM

Jerardi: Union Rags sitting on big one in Florida Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
Union Rags figures to need a triple-digit Beyer Figure to win the Florida Derby.

These 3-year-olds keep running faster. By the time they all reach Kentucky, it may take a very serious Beyer Figure to win the Derby. Unlike last year when most of the top 3-year-olds began to regress about this time, this group appears to be getting stronger.

Each weekend, another horse seems to find his way on to the Big Beyer list. They are even running Big Beyers at Sunland Park these days.

So far in 2012, Creative Cause, Secret Circle, Bodemeister (twice), Scatman, El Padrino and Daddy Nose Best have all hit triple digits on the Beyer scale. Now, it is still low triple-digits, but the numbers are all heading in the right direction.

Two names are conspicuous by their absence from the list – Hansen and Union Rags.

I am not quite sure what to think about Hansen because I am not sure when or where the 2-year-old champion is going to run, as it keeps changing.

I am sure about Union Rags. Saturday’s Florida Derby would be the time when the big colt moves into the next Beyer realm. He figures to run fast under any circumstance and, with El Padrino in the field, it will almost certainly take a triple-digit Beyer to win.

Union Rags’s jockey Julien Leparoux spent the final yards of the Fountain of Youth checking out the scene on the video board.

“First race back, I didn’t want to win by 10, 15, 20,’’ Leparoux said the next day. “It’s not a big deal.’’

The bigger deals are coming soon enough. Union Rags will have to run faster to win. I have seen no reason to doubt it will happen.

Neither does Peter Brette, Michael Matz’s assistant trainer who sits on Union Rags in the mornings.

“After this race, he’s going to be a totally different animal,’’ Brette said following the Fountain of Youth. “After the Florida Derby, he’ll just be peaking at the right time for the Derby.’’

This time six years ago, Barbaro looked like a world-class grass horse and a horse with promise on the dirt. His Florida Derby win was solid, not overwhelming.

Barbaro completely blew up in the final days before the Derby. Brette was not surprised.

“With Barbaro, personally, there was never a doubt,’’ Brette said. “Whatever we’d put him at he’d win. With this fellow, [the Fountain of Youth] was a pretty big test just to see where we were with him. I thought he’d probably be 80 percent and not really wound up. I think he’ll be a totally different horse after this.’’

If that was 80 percent, 100 percent is going to be fascinating wherever and whenever we see it.

No reason we should not expect an even better performance from Union Rags this time at Gulfstream and the kind of Beyer Figure that puts the colt right there for the Derby.

Matz is quietly confident, even if it is kind of hard to imagine he has another colt with the talent to take him back to the Derby.

“This is almost too good to believe that I’m going to have another horse that’s as good, if not better,’’ the trainer said. “He still has a lot to prove that he can what Barbaro did, but I think he’s going in that direction.’’

Sometimes, in this game, you just have to believe. But you can’t just hope. There has to be a reason for that belief.

You start hoping too much, you end up racing horses where they don’t belong and betting on horses that can’t win.

You watch the tapes of Union Rags’s five races and you always find good reason to believe. In an era of inconsistency, this colt always fires.

The presence of El Padrino is what makes this Florida Derby so fascinating. The colt’s 100 Beyer in his comeback race and 98 in his Risen Star win demonstrate he has made a giant leap from his 2-year-old season when his Beyers were 71, 75 and 79 when a close third in the Remsen.

Be interesting to see how this race gets bet. Don’t think Union Rags is going to be the second favorite or anything like the 6-5 he was in the Fountain of Youth again. Clearly, the public was thinking Discreet Dancer was the now horse and Union Rags wasn’t going to show his best stuff.

Turned out Discreet Dancer just was not good enough. Still, the public may have been right about one thing. Perhaps, Union Rags was not ready to show his best. This time, the big colt could be more ready and give everybody a show.