The story behind Union Rags and two people's shot at Derby glory
Michael Matz said Union Rags is the best Derby horse he's trained since Barbaro
Owner Phyllis Wyeth, 71, hopes the family horse can help her win her first Derby
The colt, like so many other Derby horses, has an incredible story of his ascent
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He remembers everything from the last time. The last time that really mattered, that is. That was six years ago, when thoroughbred horse trainer Michael Matz brought a giant, unbeaten three-year-old colt named Barbaro to Churchill Downs and left in very real pursuit of the Triple Crown. And then the plot thickened like few others in the history of the sport.
Matz remembers sending out Barbaro for his final workout before the Derby, under exercise rider Peter Brette and then waiting nervously on a viewing stand at the Downs, looking through his binoculars. Looking, looking, and looking some more, until a siren pierced the morning air, warning of a loose horse on the track. Minutes passed before Barbaro came rolling around the oval and only minutes after that until Matz's cell phone blew up with fellow trainers and railbird clockers telling him they had seldom seen a work so brilliant. (I remember visiting later that week with rival trainer Nick Zito and asking him to handicap the field. "Barbaro is working the best," said Zito. "By far.").
Matz also remembers, even better than that, watching from a box above the track and beneath the twin spires on Derby day, when Barbaro exploded into the lead at the head of stretch, gapping a field that had been considered wide open. "I was waiting for the other horses," said Matz. "But there were no other horses."
And he remembers two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course, when Barbaro ran less than a quarter mile of the Preakness before breaking down in front of the packed grandstand and a television audience. "He gave us great memories," said Matz. "You always expected him to win, because he always did win, except in that one race where he got hurt. The Pimlico memories aren't so great, but that goes along with it all." (As do the ensuing eight months, when Barbaro's survival -- and death in January of 2007 -- incited an emotional following that bordered on the fanatical).
Matz remembered all of these things three weeks ago while sitting in a quiet snack bar at Keeneland Race Course outside Lexington, 65 miles east of Louisville. In the background, workers packed up bottles of Maker's Mark that had been used in a charity signing earlier in the day, featuring former Kentucky quarterback (and NFL bust) Tim Couch. It is a complicated issue for Matz. He was known for many things before Barbaro -- for helping save three young children from a place crash in 1989, for winning a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics and carrying the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies. You can read all of this here.
However, for the last six years he has been known as Barbaro's trainer. (Or, for people only vaguely familiar with racing, as, "The Guy With That Horse That Died," a title he shares with veterinarian Dean Richardson, who performed numerous surgeries on the big colt). And it is clear that Matz will never leave Barbaro behind, either, although unlike the acolytes who lived vicariously through Barbaro's struggle for life, Matz's regrets are those of a competitor.
"I really thought that horse, Barbaro, could have won the Triple Crown," said Matz. "But that day, in Baltimore, the whole thing just split apart." Here Matz lets out a sound, like a little boy would make when pretending to blow something up. He gets a little choked up.
Does he think about 2006? "I think about it all the time," said Matz. "I think, boy, I want to get back there [to the Derby]." He nearly got back in 2007 with a colt named Chelokee, but he developed a foot abscess during Derby week. A year later he saddled Visionaire, but he was late-running sprinter unsuited the Derby's mile and a quarter. He finished 12th.
"This year," said Matz, "is the first time I've felt like I had a really good chance since Barbaro."
This year Matz has Union Rags, who will be among the shortest-priced starters in Saturday's 138th Derby, another big colt, another colt with talent. A colt, like so many Derby horses, with a story.
The best way to understand Union Rags' story is towatch Ed Tettemer's 24-minute documentary. It is the story of 71-year-old Phyllis Wyeth's deep affection for Union Rags, her first chance at winning the Kentucky Derby, the zenith of a sport to which she was introduced by her parents, James and Alice du Pont Mills. Wyeth's parents owned champions Glad Rags (winner of the British 1,000 Guineas in 1966) and Devil's Bag (the best U.S. two-year-old in 1983) and also raced Gone West, a speedy colt who has become an important sire. James Mills died in 1987 and Alice du Pont Mills 15 years later.
Phyllis Wyeth, who is married to artist Jamie Wyeth (the son of renowned American painter Andrew Wyeth) was a steeplechase rider as a youth, but suffered a broken neck and spinal cord damage in an automobile accident at age 20. She was initially able to walk with the aid of braces, but for many years has used a motorized chair.
Among the Mills/Wyeth family's last broodmares is Tempo, a daughter of Gone West and the mare Terpsichorist, herself a daughter of Glad Rags. Bloodlines run deep into the family. Tempo dropped foals from 2002-'07, but nearly died after the last birth. She was given a year to recover and then bred to the colt Dixie Union; their foal was born on March 3, 2009, and subsequently named Union Rags. Because of Tempo's previous foaling issues, it was determined that Union Rags would be her last baby.
It was Wyeth's wish to keep the colt and race him, but as she explains in Tettleman's film, her tax accountant advised her to sell the colt at auction. She pursued other options. "Phyllis came to me and asked if I could find someone to share ownership," said Matz. "She said she needed a partner on the colt. I didn't have anybody to bring to her."
Union Rags was entered into a yearling sale at Keeneland in September of 2010 and sold to IEAH Stables (of Big Brown fame) for $145,000. Russell Jones had long advised Wyeth and her parents on bloodstock decisions. "To me, it seemed like Phyllis never got over making the decision to sell that Dixie Union colt."
Wyeth told Tettleman: "I always wanted to keep him."
IEAH sent the colt to be broken by Eddie Woods (who had broken Big Brown) in Ocala, Fla. and then put him up for sale in the spring of 2011. Jones made Wyeth aware that the colt was available again. "She told me `Go get him,"' said Jones. "I told her he's not going to be cheap. She asked how much and I said at least 350, maybe 400. She gave me permission to go as high as 390."
Jones sat in the sales pavilion as the bidding progressed to $385,000 and then bid $5,000 more. Remarkably, no other bidder countered. "She picked a number out of the air," said Jones, "and that's where the bidding stops. How crazy is that?" (Jones said Wyeth later told him that she was actually allowed to bid whatever it took to bring Union Rags home. Jones said, "I've known her for a long time. If that's true, it would have been the first time in her life she behaved like that.").
Wyeth sent the colt to Matz just over a year ago. He was big and gawky, but clearly gifted. Last July 11 Matz threw him into a 5 1/2--furlong maiden juvenile sprint at Delaware Park. "It was short and he's a big colt, I figured it would be great if he was running at the end," said Matz. Union Rags won the race. In his second start, he won the Saratoga Special in the slop and Wyeth wept in the winner's circle, soaked by the downpour. "It was the first time she had won a graded stakes race at Saratoga," said Jones. "And that was the place where her parents had played the game at the highest levels. She was very emotional."
It has also been an emotional year for Matz. Last summer he was fired as trainer by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who raced Barbaro under the name Lael Stables. The move left a deep wound that still pains Matz, who had been with the Jacksons for a decade. "One week they gave me four two-year-olds to train, and two weeks later, 11 horses of theirs walked out of my barn," said Matz. "Mr. Jackson just said they wanted to make a change. A while after that they came to my barn and Mr. Jackson said, `I thought we should talk a little bit.' I said, `It's a little late for that, isn't it?' Maybe I took it too personally."
Gretchen Jackson said, "I just want to say that we think the world of Michael Matz and wish him nothing but the best." Asked why he Matz was fired, Jackson said, "That's just the business," and would not elaborate further.
Union Rags has continued toward Louisville since last summer, albeit not without hiccups. He endured a horrific trip and finished a fast-closing second to Hansen in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, but many handicappers considered him the best horse in that race. His 3-year-old campaign started with an impressive romp in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 12, but hit a bump when he struggled with traffic and finished third in the Florida Derby.
In that race, jockey Julien Leparoux, who took over for Javier Castellano in 2012 when Castellano chose the later-injured Algorithms, was boxed for much of the race by Castellano. Matz said, "Javier was riding my horse more than his own."
Leparoux said, "I rode a bad race. But maybe if I use the horse to get out of trouble, he doesn't have anything left for the Derby."
Two days after the race, in his stall at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida, Union Rags was a handful. "Pissed off," said Matz. It was as if he was mad that he didn't get to run hard enough. Was the Florida Derby enough? "I don't know," said Matz. But Union Rags has worked splendidly, including, like Barbaro, a terrific Derby work week at Churchill Downs. "If you win the Kentucky Derby," said Matz, "nobody cares what happened in the previous race."
Wyeth has also battled her way to Louisville. In mid-April, she agreed to meet me and SI photographer Bill Frakes at her farm in Delaware, but on the morning of the scheduled interview, I received a call from Wyeth's former sister-in-law, Anne Fields. Wyeth had taken ill. "She just wants to hold herself together and get to Kentucky," said Fields that day. A week later Wyeth was admitted to a hospital with further issues.
But Matz said on Tuesday morning at Churchill Downs that Wyeth was feeling much better and was due in Louisville that day. She was expected to participate late Wednesday afternoon in the post position draw for the Derby. One step closer to roses, completing one woman's lifelong passion and fulfilling one man's quest to just get back with a chance to win.