When mainstream sports fans last saw trainer Michael Matz, he was on the track at Pimlico after the 2006 Preakness, watching as his injured Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, was loaded into a horse ambulance. Eight months later, after a battle for survival that made him one of the most revered racehorses in history, Barbaro was euthanized. In the spring of '09 a bronze statue in the colt's honor was placed at Churchill Downs, which is where Matz appears headed this spring, with a chance to win another Derby.
Union Rags, a 3-year-old bay colt bred and owned by Phyllis Wyeth (who married into the Wyeth family of artists more than four decades ago), convincingly won Sunday's Fountain of Youth Stakes, an important—albeit early—Derby prep race at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. Two months remain until the first Saturday in May, but Union Rags, who hadn't run since he finished second to Hansen in last November's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, will race only once more, in the March 31 Florida Derby, before shipping to Louisville.
The Fountain of Youth was to have been a matchup between Union Rags and übertrainer Todd Pletcher's late-blooming Algorithms, whose freakish five-length victory over Hansen in the Holy Bull on Jan. 29 stamped him as a potential monster. But Algorithms was scratched with an injury on Sunday morning and his future is uncertain. In his absence, Pletcher's Discreet Dancer went off as the 4--5 favorite, but Union Rags rolled to the lead on the turn for home and drew clear. Jockey Julien Leparoux (who got the mount when Javier Castellano chose to ride Algorithms) showed Union Rags the stick twice but never struck flesh. Even more impressive was the fact that Matz, 61, insisted that he hadn't sharpened the colt for the race because he is pointing him toward a May peak.
The Derby's field of contenders is typically bloated: Pletcher's El Padrino showed guts in winning last Saturday's Risen Star in Louisiana; Hansen gets a chance to atone for his Holy Bull defeat this weekend in the Gotham at Aqueduct; and three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert has four contenders. But for now, they are all chasing Matz.