I just learned of the death of Phyllis Mills Wyeth on Jan. 14 at age 78. Known for her philanthropic endeavors as well as her family history in the Sport of Kings, she had a love affair with her homebred colt Union Rags that has earned a place in the history books, most notably the chapter on the Belmont Stakes.
Her husband, Jamie is an artist and the son of Andrew Wyeth, one of the great artists of the 20 th century, whose works can be seen at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, also known as the Wyeth Museum for its extensive collection of works by the Wyeth family - grandfather N.C., father Andrew and son Jamie.
Phyllis was born into racing, the daughter of James and Alice du Pont Mills.
The story of Phyllis and Union Rags played out like some great saga and seemed destined to end the way all fairy tales do.
The story began on Wyeth’s historic Point Lookout Farm overlooking Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, scene of the Battle of Brandywine, fought in the Revolutionary War. Wyeth’s parents raced under the name Hickory Tree Stable, based in Middleburg, Va., and bred and owned such top-class horses as Devil’s Bag and Gone West. Phyllis, who would hotwalk her father’s polo ponies as a young girl, said she could ride before she could walk. She worked on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960. In 1962, she was injured in a car accident, suffering a broken neck, which left her unable to walk. For 50 years, she has moved about in a motorized scooter.
“Phyllis is the most remarkable person I have ever met,” said her close friend Rick Porter, owner of Fox Hill Farm, several years ago. “Her life was turned upside down and she’s been prevented from doing the things she was always able to do, mainly ride and jump horses. As a person, she is in a class alone from anyone I have ever met. Every day is full of roadblocks that most of us can’t even fathom. Yet, she always gets to where she wants to go, no matter how hard it is for her. She needs to have action and is always planning something. She never looks at a situation and feels defeated. She meets the challenge every time.”
Wyeth always dreamed of having that special racehorse, and she thought she had found one in a young Union Rags, who was the last foal from her favorite broodmare, Tempo, who had difficulty breeding and maintaining a pregnancy. They even thought they’d lose her on a couple of occasions. Her foal by Dixie Union was so laid back and easy-going you could sit on him while he was lying down in his stall. But he showed great promise right from the start.
That’s why Wyeth was devastated when her accountant told her she had to sell the colt in order to show a profit and run the farm as a business. This was the horse she had dreamed about her whole life and she was forced to give him up. She admitted she never had such affection for a horse.
She wound up selling the colt at the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale at Saratoga for $145,000 to IEAH Stable, who had won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Big Brown. But she immediately began having seller’s remorse and the thought of losing the horse brought her to tears. This was Point Lookout’s and her family’s legacy, and he was gone.
She kept having a recurring dream that she was meant to have this horse and told her longtime adviser an friend Russell Jones to see if he could buy him back. Then one day about six months later, Jones called her and said the colt was in the Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-old sale at Palm Meadows. IEAH was having some financial issues of their own and had been pinhooking horses in order to create as much cash flow as possible.
They had sent Union Rags to Eddie Woods in Ocala to prepare for the sale. “He was such a big, beautiful mover,” Woods recalled. “He had the potential to be anything. And he was just the perfect gentleman to train.”
When Wyeth heard from Jones about her colt being in the sale, she was simple and to the point: “Get him.”
Jones told her she was going to have to pay a lot more than she sold him for, but she was determined to buy him back. Jones thought he could go as high as $400,000, and Wyeth told him to go to $390,000, and if she had to she would borrow the money from the bank. When the colt stepped into the ring, the auctioneer said, “Oh, boy, isn’t he beautiful?”
The bidding rose steadily in $10,000 increments, reaching Jones’ limit. He bid $390,000 and that was it. Down came the hammer. The auctioneer said, “Thank you and good luck,” and Wyeth had her horse back.
“It was as if it was supposed to happen,” Jones said. “She picked that number out of thin air and that’s what he sold for. You have to believe he was meant to come home.”
Wyeth turned Union Rags over to Michael Matz and was a bit apprehensive when he entered him in a five-furlong maiden race at Delaware Park. Matz, who has never had a reputation for sending out precocious 2-year-olds, realized the colt needed experience and had been training well, so he decided to run him short. When the colt won, he and Wyeth knew they had something special on their hands. Romps in the Saratoga Special and Champagne followed, and then came a tough defeat to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
To Matz’ surprise and indignation, Hansen not only won the Eclipse Award, but won in a landslide. “I didn’t mind losing the Eclipse Award, but I didn’t think Hansen should have gotten four times as many votes,” he said. “It was one of those instances where you look at something and say, ‘How can I be so wrong?’”
But what was on Matz’ and Wyeth’s mind now was the Derby trail. That was the race Wyeth dreamed about an felt Union Rags was destined to win to give the story its fairy tale ending.
Everything started off perfectly when Union Rags romped by four lengths in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. With his pedigree and running style, the talk around the sport was not about winning the Derby, but the Triple Crown. However, a third-place finish in the Florida Derby at odds of 2-5 came as a jolt of reality and put those dreams on hold temporarily. But the hope had not died. After all, any horse can be excused for one defeat. So Wyeth went to Louisville with high hopes and the utmost faith in the horse who she had fallen in love with as a baby and who had somehow managed to return to her. She never stopped believing that she destined to run him on the first Saturday in May.
That dream, however, was shattered when Union Rags was squeezed badly at the start and had to take up, falling far back. Passing the finish line the first time he was nearly last in the 20-horse field. After three-quarters, he was still back in 18th place, some 20 lengths off the lead. All hope was gone. He actually di well to finish seventh, making up early seven lengths in the final furlong.
Wyeth, crushed by the defeat, went to her home in Maine with her husband to unwind from the bitter disappointment of the Derby.
“She was good right after the race, but as the week went on it started to sink in that it’s finished; that’s it, the Derby is gone,” Matz said.
“She took it tough and rightly so,” said Russell Jones. “With all the attention she was getting, it put her on a level she wasn’t used to being on. She really doesn’t like all the attention. This colt has always been so special to her and to have the rug pulled out from under her was very tough. She went up to Maine and when I talked to her recently she sounded better, but she was whipped.”
The Derby wasn’t the way the fairy tale was supposed to end. But there was still the Belmont Stakes, the “Test of the Champion.”
After the Derby, Union Rags returned to his home at the bucolic Fair Hill training center in Fair Hill, Md. Meanwhile, I’ll Have Another had captured the hearts of racing fans all over the country with his gutsy victories over a stubborn and game foe in Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. A new hero had been born, with the stamina, courage, and toughness to conquer the elusive Triple Crown. The decades of waiting seemed to finally be at an end.
But back at Fair Hill, far away from all the tumult, Union Rags awaited his final chance at Triple Crown glory. Fair Hill was the perfect place for Union Rags to unwind, with its forests and gentle rolling hills and winding horse paths, where horses frolic in sand pens and graze contentedly in paddocks.
One morning, shortly after the debacle of the Kentucky Derby, Matz was applying ointment on the cuts the colt suffered on his pastern at Churchill Downs. A steady morning rain prevented Union Rags was going out in the paddock and he made his displeasure known. Matz had decided to skip the Preakness and point for the Belmont to give the colt time to recover from his ordeal.
“Everything couldn’t have gone any better except for the last two minutes,” Matz said. “And that was the only part we couldn’t control. I didn’t know what to say to Phyllis, she was so disappointed. You can’t criticize the horse if he isn‘t given a chance to run.”
Union Rags, as most horses do, was flourishing at Fair Hill. Two weeks before the Belmont, he went out for a steady gallop following an early morning thunderstorm. His regular rider, Matz’ assistant Peter Brette, was taking his first day off in four months, and Paul Madden, an amateur rider who had competed at the Fair Hill races the day before, was given a leg up on the colt.
He walked in Union Rags’ stall, gave him a smack on the neck and said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to get on his back.”
After his gallop, Union Rags was put in the sand pen for a while before being turned out in a spacious paddock, as he is every morning. Matz was hoping to salvage one of the Triple Crown events and felt his best chance to do so was skip the Preakness and train him for the Belmont.
“I don’t know if a mile and a half is the place to accomplish that, but I feel he deserves to go in one of the last two Triple Crown races, and the Belmont looks to be his best chance,” Matz said.
The colt remained cloistered at Fair Hill while I’ll Have Another and trainer Doug O’Neill dominated the headlines. I’ll Have Another’s arch rival, Bodemeister, owned by Zayat Stables and trained by Bob Baffert, was skipping the Belmont, replaced by another lightly raced colt from the same connections named Paynter, who at one point was regarded as the more talented of the two.
On the Sunday before the Belmont, John Velazquez, who was replacing Julien Leparoux, went down to Fair Hill to work Union Rags, who breezed five furlongs in a brisk :59 flat.
“Michael just said he wanted me to get a feel for the horse,” Velazquez said. “As soon as I got on him, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘Man, he’s pretty strong,’ Michael said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be good for you in the race. He’s been a unlucky horse, so just try to get a clean trip and we’ll go from there.’ He did everything so easily in the work; I was very impressed with him. Hopefully, I can give him the trip he deserves. He’s just a big, strong, gorgeous horse, and I think people are going to be surprised to see him return to the Union Rags they knew.”
Although 12 were entered in the Belmont, only five were given a legitimate chance to win – I’ll Have Another, Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Dullahan, Union Rags, Paynter, and Street Life, third in the Peter Pan Stakes. Atigun, trained by Kenny McPeek, who upset the 2002 Belmont with Sarava, looked to have the stamina to be considered a live longshot.
Then the day before the Belmont, all hell broke loose as O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam announced at a press conference that I’ll Have Another would not run because of a tendon injury and was being retired. The news came as a crushing blow to a sport in dire need of a hero and to all those yearning to see a Triple Crown winner, many for the first time in their lives.
Although racing had just had the wind knocked out of it, there was still a Belmont to be run and a glorious opportunity for Union Rags to finally make history.
Velazquez had Union Rags down on the inside in fifth after breaking from post 3 and was just biding his time, waiting for room. The longer the race went the more uneasy Matz and Wyeth became, seeing the same scenario as the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby unfolding.
“I was having flashbacks of the last two races and was starting to get nervous,” Matz said.
Paynter continued to lead, while under a comfortable hold by Smith and looked to be in control of the race, slowing down the fractions with a 1:38.85 mile. Passing the three-eighths pole, Atigun made a bold move on the far outside and looked to be a legitimate threat. Union Rags, meanwhile, had made steady progress without having to break stride at all, but found himself directly behind Paynter, with the outside sealed off by Atigun.
Smith could sense the danger from Atigun and went to a left-handed whip after turning for home. Paynter eased slightly off the rail, just enough to allow Union Rags a path, as narrow as it was. Velazquez jumped at the opportunity and came through the tight spot. Paynter had repulsed the challenge from Atigun and now had to turn his attention to Union Rags, who was creeping up on his inside.
“I saw the hole and I waited for it to open up,” Velazquez said. “I got lucky. The horse did it all.”
Paynter dug in again, but Union Rags kept coming and was able to just get up by a neck.
The colt had come through for Wyeth and Matz and closed out the 2012 Triple Crown by writing at least one chapter of the trilogy and turning the fairy tale into reality.
As Wyeth, seemingly overwhelmed by the experience, was wheeled into the winner’s circle, one of those cheering her on was her niece Sophie Derrickson, who lives in Bali with her husband Lance.
“I’m so happy for Phyllis,” she said. “She really needed this. After the Derby, she was great until she got home. Once she got home she crashed for several days and then left for Maine. Phyllis is like my mother. We’ve done everything together. We traveled together just the two of us when I was young and she was able to. Whenever she had something exciting to do she asked me to be there with her. It’s so wonderful to have such a great aunt who treats me like a daughter. I’m the only grandchild in the family. I only wish I’ll Have Never would have been here for us to beat him.”
After the race, the quiet and reserved Wyeth passed on the post-race interview, much to the disappointment of the media, and was taken to the director’s room before heading back to the barn to see her hero.
“I want to see Peter and the boys,” she said, holding a half-smoked cigar. “I went upstairs, but it got so hot I was ready to pass out. I had to go out and have a little puff of my cigar.”
Union Rags had just been out grazing for a short while and Brette asked her if she wanted to see him out.
“No, if you tell me he’s alright, that’s fine with me,” she said. “You call me in two days and tell me if there’s any heat. I’m sorry I didn’t mention you (on TV); everything was out so of control.”
But Brette had the colt brought out anyway, and Wyeth wheeled herself over to him and gave him a pat on the forehead.
And so, Wyeth and Union Rags got to complete their fairy tale and live happily ever after. The horse was put on a van that night and returned home to Fair Hill.
“Tomorrow he’ll be turned out in a nice paddock,” said Matz, “and can stay out as long as he wants to.”
The Belmont would be Union Rags’ final race, as a suspensory injury discovered a month after the Belmont ended his career.
As this year’s Derby trail unfolds, Union Rags, who has developed into a top-class sire at Lane’s End Farm, has three recent impressive maiden winners who look to be very promising – Dessman, trained by Bob Baffert, Motagally, trained by Chad Brown, and Laughing Fox, trained by Steve Asmussen.
Wyeth won’t get to see how they pan out, but her legacy will live on through the grand-looking colt who miraculously returned to her and enabled her to live out her dream.