Great expectations are a tough burden to bear.
All of the thoroughbred industry is lusting for a superstar. Union Rags seemingly has the full package: a massive 17-hands colt with a powerful long stride, handsome looks, a solid pedigree, a cool and calm temperament, and the heart-warming story of his owner/breeder Phyllis Wyeth.
Returning to Gulfstream Park off a four-length romp in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Union Rags turned in a disappointing performance in the $1 million Florida Derby on March 31. Bet down to 2-5, all Union Rags needed to do was outrun Reveron from an outside post and stalk Take Charge Indy heading into the first turn.
It didn’t happen. After being taken back under a snug hold by Julien Leparoux during the early stages, Union Rags was in a mess of trouble. He was pinned on the rail by second-choice El Padrino behind a wall of horses on the backstretch. Union Rags spun his wheels around the far turn, then wove in and out rallying through horses in the stretch before the colt finally got clear at the eighth pole. By then Take Charge Indy was long gone. The Chadds Ford Stable colt finished a credible third.
Michael Matz, who saddled Barbaro to victories in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby in 2006, thought Union Rags only ran the last eighth of a mile, so his colt won’t be taxed by a hard race going into the Derby. With three slow breezes headed into the Florida Derby, Matz seemed intent on making sure Union Rags wasn’t fully cranked for the race and risk having him peak a race too early. Still, it wasn’t Leparoux’s finest hour.
“Julien said he should have been closer the way the track (speed favoring) was. Because horses weren’t coming back,” Matz noted. “When they went that slow (:47.71, 1:12.09), I thought he would have tried to press the pace. Julien has to realize maybe he has to use him a little bit more in the beginning to get to [a good stalking] spot. It was just disappointing, but the good part is I hope that Julien learned about the horse a little bit more.”
That’s why they call these races preps. Lessons are learned. Champions rebound. Secretariat, Genuine Risk, Ferdinand and Unbridled all finished third in their final preps before wearing the roses on the first Saturday in May.
Union Rags got an education in adversity in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby. There is plenty to build off of that race that will come in handy in the always rough-and-tumble Kentucky Derby. It took Union Rags from the far turn to the middle of the stretch to kick into full gear. Once the colt hit his best, he was reeling in the leader with every stride. But he didn’t have the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles.
In the Fountain of Youth Stakes-- where he wasn’t pushed at all-- Union Rags posted a career-best Byer Speed Figure (BSF) of 95. He should be able to improve that figure considerably, and he’ll need it to win the Kentucky Derby. Bodemeister earned the top BSF for three-year olds this season with an impressive 108 in the Arkansas Derby. He is followed by Daddy Nose Best (102), Creative Cause (100), Secret Circle (100), Dullahan (98), Gemologist (98), Hansen (95) and Take Charge Indy (95). The Derby favorite should come from the mix of Bodemeister, Dullahan, Gemiologist and Union Rags.
If Matz is able to replicate the Barbaro training regimen the last few weeks heading into the Derby, Union Rags should be peaking on Derby Day. The question-- as always in the cavalry charge of 20 starters in the Derby-- will be the trip. Leparoux will need to be aggressive early when the going gets tight and get Union Rags into the clear before it is too late. As Matz alluded, the long striding colt is talented and tough enough that he can be aggressively ridden when the opportunity occurs. He will need that quick-fire move on the far turn, pouncing on the leaders at the top of the stretch, Many a Kentucky Derby has been won with that kind of move, ala Animal Kingdom roaring down the center of the track last year.
Despite the surprising defeat in the Florida Derby, Union Rags wound up the 7-2 favorite in the final day of betting in the third and final pool of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager.
“He rated, waited and made a run (in the Florida Derby),” said Sean Clancy, a former champion steeplechase jockey whose roots are in Chester County. “If you liked him before the Florida Derby, you should love him now. He’ll be a better price (in the Derby). As for Leparoux, it’s not making the mistake that’s important. The important part, in the life of a jockey, is how you recover from making that mistake.”
The son of former jockey-turned-trainer Robert Leparoux, Julien grew up around racing in Chantilly, France, and rode competitive hunter/jumpers until he launched his racing career at age 18. He came to America in early 2003 and three years later Leparoux led the nation by races won.
A two-time Eclipse Award winner, Leparoux has earned leading jockey titles at tracks such as Keeneland, Churchill Downs and Turfway Park. In 2009 he became only the second jockey in history to win three Breeders’ Cup races. This spring the 28 year old Frenchman is eyeing the leading jockey title at Keeneland for the fourth consecutive spring or fall meet.
Still, Leparoux takes plenty of heat from race fans. He is compared often to Hall of Famer Pat Day for his patient rides. Typically when Leparoux’s top-flight mounts hit the stretch there is still plenty left in the tank. In other words, Leparoux doesn’t tend to use up horses earlier in the race.
After the Florida Derby loss Leparoux tweeted to his critics: “...to all the ones that say that I (stunk), I will prove you wrong...”
We’ll know early Saturday evening, May 5th.
It was déjà vu all over again. Team Valor International Went the Day Well punched his ticket to the 2012 Kentucky Derby with a dominating victory in the $500,000 Spiral Stakes (G-2) at Turfway Park on March 24. It was a near re-play of stablemate Animal Kingdom’s decisive victory in the 2011 Spiral, en route to his 2011 Kentucky Derby victory that earned the colt an Eclipse Award as champion three-year-old.
Went the Day Well has the same owner, trainer, and jockey, John Velazquez, who picked up the mount on Animal Kingdom on the eve of the 2011 Derby. Sent off at 5-1 odds in the spiral Stakes, Velazquez piloted Went the Day Well on a textbook ground-saving trip from just off the pace to a 3 1/2-length decision while running the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:51.33 on Polytrack. A son of Proud Citizen who finished second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness Stakes, Went the Day Well has $288,300 in all-important graded earnings.
“I was very impressed with him,” remarked trainer Graham Motion. “Apart from a little greenness in the stretch he couldn’t have been better. When Animal Kingdom won this race last year, he was very explosive, but this horse was a little explosive, too. It’s a little unfair to compare the two because they are such different horses. Right now people will want to compare them because they won the same race. Physically, they are two very different horses. Animal Kingdom is an impressive work horse and this horse just does what he has to do.”
One thing Went the Day Well already has over Animal Kingdom at this point is a win on dirt.
“I’m totally confident in this horse,” said Barry Irwin, founder and CEO of Team Valor. “I told everybody that asked me today, of the four three-year olds (Howe Great, State of Play and Lucky Chappy) we’ve got… I said I would take this horse over all the other ones. This one is the best.”
Went the Day Well’s name comes from a 1942 British World War II film based on legendary British author Graham Greene’s short story “The Lieutenant Died Last.” The phrase ‘Went the day well?’ is part of an epitaph composed by John Maxwell Edmonds for the graves of soldiers who died defending Great Britain.
Foaled in New York, the bay colt was purchased for $43,385 at the Tattersalls October 2010 yearling sale and sent to trainer Ed McMahon in England. Went Well the Day ran twice on British turf where he was a solid second twice as a juvenile, before he was purchased privately by Team Valor and sent to Graham Motion’s stable. After arriving in south Florida, Went the Day Well spent an extra ten days in quarantine than originally planned. In his U. S. debut he had a rough-trip fourth on February 4 at 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream. Still learning the racing game, Went the Day Well showed how much raw talent he has when he scorched his rivals by 11 1/4 lengths on the main track at Gulfstream on March 3.
“He came from Europe and got held up in quarantine,” Motion said. “That caused him to lose some fitness, and so we were playing catch-up with him. The Derby is definitely wide open. I wasn’t sure if Union Rags was beatable, and I’m kind of glad he did get beat because that proves he is beatable. That was the horse that really stood out.”
“We’ve always liked our colt a lot, and he seems like a horse who wants to go long on dirt. We’d kick ourselves in June if we were to find out then that he is that kind of horse.”
In the Spiral Stakes Went the Day Well recorded a career-best 92 Byer Speed Figure so he’ll need to improve on the Beyer scale if he is to upset the Kentucky Derby. He’ll also face much-tougher competition in Louisville than he has in any of his races.
His tactical speed will allow jockey Velazquez several options. With the Derby pace expected to be hot, Went the Day Well could wind up in a comfortable spot in mid-pack. His connections are hoping the colt can unleash a powerful move on the far turn, just like their colt Animal Kingdom did in last year’s Derby. And just like Animal Kingdom (20-1), Went the Day Well should go off at generous odds.
“He’s a good horse but he’s not all mentally there yet,” Irwin said. “He wants to run a mile and a quarter, that’s for sure. He’s a big, tough son-of-a-gun, and he can handle it.”
What is the best barometer for the 2012 Kentucky Derby? Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Amazingly, as a group, they have accounted for wins in nine graded stakes races: the Gotham (Alpha), Fountain of Youth (Union Rags), San Felipe (Creative Cause), Florida Derby (Take Charge Indy), San Vicente (Drill), Withers (Alpha), UAE Derby (Daddy Long Legs) and the Tampa Bay Derby (Prospective). Dullahan became the latest grades stakes winner when he rolled down the stretch to capture the $750,000 Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14.