05/06/2012 11:51AM

Kentucky Derby 2012: Matz calls Union Rags’s race a disaster

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Barbara D. Livingston
Union Rags, with Julien Leparoux riding, finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – On the morning of Feb. 27, less than 24 hours after Union Rags’s triumphant 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth, trainer Michael Matz stood beaming outside his barn at the Palm Meadows training center, secure and confident in the knowledge that he had the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby.

On Sunday, less than 24 hours after Union Rags’s troubled seventh-place finish under Julien Leparoux in the Derby, Matz stood outside his barn at Churchill Downs disconsolate and frustrated while recounting the eventful trip that denied his horse any chance of giving the trainer his second Derby win.

“When I saw him come by the stands for the first time, I knew we were in big trouble,” Matz said. “The way the track was playing, you had to be closer than 18th.  They just weren’t closing like that. We talked about it with Julien and we wanted to be third or fourth coming out of the first turn. There’s a big difference between third and 18th. It seemed like everything Julien tried put him in the wrong situation. I guess he just couldn’t get it done.”

Union Rags broke a step slowly and was squeezed between Take Charge Indy and Dullahan immediately after the start of the Derby. He then steadied several times while racing along the rail near the rear of the pack, almost 20 lengths behind pacesetter Bodemeister in the run down the backstretch. Union Rags did surge late, once finally clear, but was left with too much to do, finishing 7 1/2 lengths behind the winner, I’ll Have Another.

“I came back to the barn after the race and asked Peter, ‘What did I miss?’” Matz said, referring to his assistant and Union Rag’s regular exercise rider, Peter Brette. “I thought I had him primed to run a really big one yesterday. But the only two minutes I couldn’t control were a disaster.

Matz said Union Rags “just went through the motions” in the Kentucky Derby and in his third-place finish in the Florida Derby.
“I was really disappointed in his last two races,” he said. “I don’t mind getting beat, I just don’t like getting beat the way he did in both the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. He never got a chance to run or really show his true ability.”

From all indications, Union Rags came out of the Derby in good order, Matz said.

“Julien said he heard a pop at the three-eighths pole, but we jogged him last night and I didn’t see anything,” Matz said. “There was no heat or anything like that.”

Union Rags was scheduled to ship back to Fair Hill on Sunday evening, after which Matz will have two decisions to make – whether to run back in the Preakness or await the Belmont, and who will ride Union Rags in his next start.

“My first thought now is to say we won’t go to the Preakness,” Matz said. “It’s a long year and waiting for the Belmont makes more sense. I don’t think distance has ever been a question for this horse. In his last two races, we never got a chance to see his full stride. He probably didn’t get the opportunity to run a half-mile in the two races combined.”

Matz said as bad as he felt for himself after the Derby, he felt even worse for Union Rags’s owner-breeder, Phyllis Wyeth.

“It’s just such a big disappointment, especially for Phyllis,” Matz said. “You don’t get many chances to run in the Derby, especially with one of the favorites. It’s not like you can come back and do it again next week.”

Matz said he would discuss the jockey situation with the horse’s owners and Brette.