Phyllis Wyeth, forground, with security and husband, famed American painter Jamie Wyeth (top right) enjoys a cigar in the winner’s circle following Union Rags’ victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Photo credit: Jane Conway
When a top-class horse returns to the racetrack it can be a glorious revival or a crushing letdown. Both anticipation and anxiety fill the air. Not to worry. Union Rags, Animal Kingdom and Horse of the Year Havre de Grace all delivered triumphant comebacks in their season debuts.
Phyllis Wyeth’s homebred colt cruised to a sensational four length victory in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G-2) at Gulfstream Park. Stalking a pair of front runners Union Rags hit the top of the stretch and blew by his rivals, quickly opening up daylight. The strapping bay colt, now an imposing 17 hands, continued to draw away despite the short stretch run. He came home (over the final two furlongs) in a swift :23 4/5 under wraps late in a confident ride by Julien Leparoux, riding the colt for the first time. Union Rags earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure in the 1 1/16-mile race.
“You never know what to expect after being away four months, but I couldn’t have asked for things to have gone any better than they did,” trainer Michael Matz said. “I wasn’t surprised he ran well, what surprised me was that he did it so easily.”
“We were just out for a practice run," said owner/breeder Wyeth in the winner’s circle. “Can you believe that one? And we didn't want him to peak too soon. We were not expecting him to win – and giving (five) pounds to Discreet Dancer. It’s just a wonderful performance.”
When Leparoux unleashed the colt rounding the far turn Union Rags blew by favorite Discreet Dancer and News Pending at the top of the stretch and spurted away in a few strides, hitting the wire in a speedy 1:42 3/5.
What was so impressive about his return was that the colt appeared to barely be trying.
“I was hoping he would run a good race, but I was not expecting that,” Leparoux said. “He's such an easy horse to ride and did everything so easily. I didn’t hit him once. I just showed him the stick a couple times. I’m sure he was not 100 percent today, which means he should just get better.”
Leading Derby Contender
After the race most pundits stamped Union Rags the leading Kentucky Derby contender. The son of Dixie Union is out of the winning Gone West mare Tempo. With speed from his sire and stamina from his dam’s side, Union Rags has the perfect running style for the Derby, settling back off the pace and unleashing an explosive run from the three-eighths pole to the top of the stretch.
His final Kentucky Derby prep will be the $1 million Florida Derby (G-1) at Gulfstream Park on March 31.
“He should improve off this race since anytime you have a race under your belt it gets you a little tighter,” said Matz. “Julien said he didn’t get tired and galloped out well.”
Now a millionaire ($1,098,800), Union Rags sports a 4-1-0 record. Matz’s assistant trainer Peter Brette has ridden Wyeth’s colt in morning workouts. Brette was also a key player in the development and success of the undefeated Barbaro who captured the 2006 Derby.
“Peter is a big help to me because he’s on the horse giving me feedback so it is an extra tool to use in the training,” Matz related.”
The trainer wouldn’t be drawn into comparisons of the two colts.
“I think Union Rags is a real good horse, he’s a bit unlucky not to be undefeated in losing by two feet after a very wide trip,” Matz acknowledged. “He has a real good disposition and I certainly don’t think there’s any problem with distance (the Derby’s 1 3/4-mile) with him.”
Havre de Grace Cruises in Fairgrounds Comeback
“Mission accomplished, first race back,” reported jockey Ramon Dominguez.
Horse of the Year Havre de Grace blew by her rivals at the top of the stretch and went on to an easy 4 1/2-length victory in the $150,000 New Orleans Ladies at the Fairgrounds on March 17.
Tracking the pair of pacesetters midway on the far turn, Dominguez shook the reins and Havre de Grace accelerated like a shot. Going four wide Havre de Grace blew by her rivals and rolled down the entire stretch without urging from her jockey. The Saint Liam 5-year old mare powered home to finish 1 1/16 miles over the fast dirt in 1:42.79, just missing the track record, set in 1994, by 0.77 seconds.
“We had a great trip. My main purpose was to try and keep her out of trouble,” Dominguez said. “We saved some ground going into the first turn and down the backside. I had a chance to get her in the clear and get her going and from then on she was on cruise control. When it was time to go I had to tap her a few times and she got into gear and it was easy from then on.”
That was exactly what owner Rick Porter was hoping for.
“The minute Ramon asked her she just couldn't wait to run,” said Porter.” She just looked fantastic. Her coat, her weight, everything looked the same as when I saw her at the Breeders’ Cup.”
“She’s come to hand much quicker this year than last year,” trainer Larry Jones observed. “It really looks like her 5-year-old year could be special for her.”
Havre de Grace has scored seven stakes victories and five stakes placings. She has bankrolled $2,586,174 in career earnings to go along with her 9-4-2 mark in 16 races. Havre de Grace is likely to be pointed to the Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn Park in a mid-April, race, which she impressively won over Blind Luck in 2011.
Animal Kingdom Out Three Months
Animal Kingdom couldn’t have been any more impressive returning from an eight-month layoff cruising to an easy allowance win on the grass at Gulfstream Park Feb. 18. That was the good news.
Three weeks later after working five furlongs, Animal Kingdom developed lameness which prompted his connections to withdraw him from the $10 Million Dubai World Cup on March 31. The 2011 Kentucky Derby winner underwent a scan at the Palm Beach Equine Medical Center, where the beginning of a stress fracture of the ilium was detected, unrelated to his hock fracture from last June in the left hind leg.
Dr. Dean Richardson of the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center performed the hock surgery after Animal Kingdom was clobbered coming out of the starting gate in the Belmont Stakes.
“If any injury was going to happen to this horse initially, this would be about as good a situation as one could hope for,” Richardson said after analyzing the digital x-rays.
“The horse will stay in his stall for a month and be grazed every day, after which time he’ll be transferred to Team Valor’s barn at Fair Hill Training Center, where for the next 60 days he will have limited activity,” said Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin.
“Then he will return to full training. Team Valor’s interest is to run the horse for another year. Graham Motion and I think we should have a good enough idea by September of whether or not he is the same horse in his training. If he’s not, we will then begin talking with farms at home and abroad. We have received interest from multiple parties in Japan and the United States, as well as a serious breeder in England, but we have told all of them that we would not talk about it until the fall.”
With his win at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 18, Animal Kingdom pushed his career earnings to more than $1.96 million. It was his fourth win in eight career starts.
Stablemate Lucky Chappy (Ire) was still on schedule to make the trip for the $2 million UAE Derby. The High Chaparral (Ire) colt finished a game second by a nose to Daddy Nose Best in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on February 18, rallying from last of ten with a sweeping move and just missed getting up at the finish line despite losing quite a bit of ground.
On the Derby Trail
It’s been anything but a lucky start of the year for Jonathan Sheppard’s colt Ever So Lucky. He was considered among the leading Kentucky Derby contenders wintering in south Florida when the New Year began. But a week’s worth of rain prior to his first scheduled start in the Hutcheson (G-2) on Feb. 11 and a bruised hoof left Ever So Lucky grounded until the Swales Stakes on March 10.
Owned by Chester County’s George Strawbridge, Jr., Ever So Lucky finished third in his season debut. The 6-5 favorite in the field of ten, Ever So Lucky was in a drive all the way around the far turn and never seriously threatened the winner. Joe Bravo replaced regular rider Julien Leparoux, who was riding in the Tampa Bay Stakes.
Trainer Jonathan Sheppard shrugged off the loss.
“We are very happy," related Sheppard. "Obviously, you like to win, but we hadn’t really been training him for speed like that. We’ve been trying to get a good bottom under him for longer races and two-turn races. I thought it was a very good effort. He galloped out really well.”
Ever So Lucky still needs a considerable infusion of graded stakes earnings in his next race in order to make the Kentucky Derby. Ever So Lucky is likely headed to the Bluegrass Stakes in mid-April.
One colt who stepped up in his Derby prep was Howe Great. Team Valor's homebred colt held off Kentucky Derby hopeful Dullahan in the $150,000 Palm Beach Stakes (G-3) on the Gulfstream Park turf on March 11. It was the fourth consecutive victory for Howe Great, the past three coming on Gulfstream's turf. He broke his maiden on dirt at Philadelphia's Parx Racing last fall. Is the three year old son of Hat Trick headed to the Derby?
“We talked about it before the race and decided the logical spot for him if he did well today would be to go to the Blue Grass and see where we go from there,” said trainer Graham Motion said after the Palm Beach victory.
Barry Irwin bred Howe Great in Kentucky. The dark bay/brown colt is out of the South African mare Ginger Sea, by Western Winter. He has earned $211,500 with four wins and a second from five starts and banked $90,000 in graded earnings in the Palm Beach Stakes.
“He hasn’t done too much wrong in his life," acknowledged Motion. "He’s a very classy, straightforward horse. The more he races, the more relaxed he has become. He’s been in front in some of his races, but as you saw today he’s very tractable and relaxed, and doesn’t need the lead.”
Motion and Irwin have another Derby contender in State of Play who battled gutsy Ill Conceived head-to- head down the stretch in the $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes at Turfway Park on March 3. State of Play prevailed with a fortuitous head-bob at the wire over Ill Conceived, trained by Parx-based John Servis.
“He’s still learning, but I was really pleased to see him battle back,” said Servis, who trained Smarty Jones. “Ill Conceived ran a great race.”
A Grade-2 winner in his second start, the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga, the War Front colt now has three wins in five starts and earnings of $166,500. Both State of Play and Ill Conceived are slated to run in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (G-3) at Turfway Park on March 24.
Servis’ other top three-year old, Adirondack King, closed nicely from ninth for third in the second division of the Southwest Stakes in mid-February. In the Rebel Stakes, March 17, he flattened out in the stretch finishing seventh, likely ending his Derby quest.
In early February Larry Jones’ colt Mark Valeski came up a nose short to highly touted El Padrino in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Jones’ other Derby prospect Mr. Bowling finished last, and is probably gone from the Derby Trail. Mark Valeski is likely pointed to the $1 million Louisiana Derby a 1 1/8-mile race April 1.
To contact Pennsylvania Equestrian horseracing writer Terry Conway email firstname.lastname@example.org