It is with a mixture of frustration, hope, and envy that Michael Matz prepares Union Rags to take on I’ll Have Another in the 144th Belmont Stakes on June 9 at Belmont Park.
Frustration because of the terrible trip Union Rags had in the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Hope that Union Rags can show his best in the Belmont. And envy that another horse is going for the Triple Crown.
“I thought this horse could win the Triple Crown,” Matz said of Union Rags during a national teleconference Wednesday. “But you have to let it go, because it’s not going to come back.”
Matz admits, though, that he has had a tough time letting it go. He won the Derby with Barbaro in 2006, and thought he had a chance to do it again with Union Rags.
“It’s very disappointing,” Matz said, the frustration evident in his voice. “Everything went absolutely perfect until the last two minutes.
“How many times,” Matz added, “do you have one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby?”
Julien Leparoux rode Union Rags in his last three races. He was aboard for a runaway victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes to start the 2012 campaign, but Union Rags had troubled trips in both the Florida Derby and then the Kentucky Derby.
“I didn’t think after the Florida Derby it could happen again,” Matz said. “It was worse. I thought he was sitting on a big race the last two races.”
As a result, John Velazquez will replace Leparoux in the Belmont.
“I don’t know whose fault it is,” Matz said. “Maybe it’s the jockey’s fault. Maybe it’s the horse’s fault. Maybe it’s the trainer’s fault. Maybe we won’t have a better result. But we have to try something.”
Union Rags already has run, and run well, at Belmont Park, the site of his eye-catching victory last fall in the Champagne Stakes. But, like every other horse in the Belmont, his aptitude at 1 1/2 miles is unknown.
“Whether he can get a mile and a half, I don’t know,” Matz said. “He’s a big horse. The bigger turns help.”
What Matz is most desirous of is a clean trip, one where Union Rags can, as he put it, “use his stride.” Regardless of the result, Matz at least wants the satisfaction of knowing Union Rags had a fair chance to show his best.
“I just hope, in this race, he gets a clear chance to run,” Matz said. “I’d like him to get a clean trip, so he can show what he can do. He never had a chance to run his last two races.
“I expect him to come in in top form,” Matz added. “If he’s good enough, you’ll see the true Union Rags.”
Union Rags has been at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland since the Derby, and he will remain there until Belmont week. He is scheduled to have a workout late this week, Matz said, and another at the end of next week, both at Fair Hill. Matz said Union Rags had a “two-minute lick” last Friday, but it was not a workout that made the tab.
While Matz has great respect for what I’ll Have Another has accomplished so far, he said he “wouldn’t be going in there if we didn’t think we could beat him.”
To best accomplish that goal, Matz decided to give Union Rags five weeks between the Derby and Belmont and bypass the Preakness. That is a schedule that has proven effective in the last decade for Belmont winners like Summer Bird (2009), Jazil (2006), and Triple Crown spoilers Birdstone (2004) and Empire Maker (2003).
Matz said he decided to skip the Preakness because “I didn’t see any sense in coming back in two weeks.”
“It’s a long year,” he said. “And he couldn’t win the Triple Crown.”
** I’ll Have Another, the Derby and Preakness winner, went to the track at Belmont Park on Wednesday morning for a training session after merely walking the last three days following his Preakness win Saturday. He arrived Sunday at Belmont Park, where he had never previously set foot. I’ll Have Another is only expected to gallop the rest of the week and will not have any serious training until at least next week, when his trainer, Doug O’Neill, returns from his base in California.
** Rosie Napravnik will ride Five Sixteen in the Belmont, according to her agent, Matt Muzikar. Julie Krone, in the 1993 Belmont aboard Colonial Affair, is the only female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.