Despite the fact that he lost the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a head and may not be named 2-year-old champion as a result, Union Rags entered 2012 as the no-doubt-about-it early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
On Jan. 11, his Triple Crown quest officially got started, as he turned in his first official breeze of the year at Palm Meadows. As trainer Michael Matz said, it was a non-eventful work--three furlongs in :38 1/5--but it was an official work nonetheless, which means the hype has officially begun.
Matz, who certainly does not enjoy the spotlight, received enough media attention to last him a lifetime in 2006 after Barbaro's Kentucky Derby victory, his subsequent Preakness breakdown, and his ensuing struggle for life that captivated the nation. From the day that Barbaro was injured on May 20, 2006 until the day he lost his battle against laminitis on Jan. 29, 2007, Matz was expected to do daily interviews and make himself accessible to everyone. And for years afterward he was forced to talk about not only Barbaro's legacy, but to compare him to every one of his siblings that stepped onto the track. If Matz won't say it I will: It was draining and tiresome. After a while, he just didn't want to deal with the media anymore. And I don't blame him.
But years removed from all of that, Matz seems like he is refreshed and ready for the onslaught of hype that will follow him and Union Rags for the next five-plus months. Don't misunderstand, he will never be Bob Baffert or win any open mic nights at his local comedy club, but Matz knows he has a horse that can take him to the promised land again and is grateful to have the opportunity. He seems ready to embrace what lies ahead.
On Wednesday morning, Matz talked a little about Union Rags' heartbreaking Breeders' Cup defeat, his road to the Triple Crown, his split with the Jacksons, and yes, even made a comparison to Barbaro. He even got a good laugh when I suggested that "I squeezed as much out of him as I could after only one three-eighths work."
JS: Are you ready for the hype?
MM: Do I have a choice (laughs)? It is what it is. It's wonderful to have this kind of horse. I mean, it's a horse you get excited about waking up and going to the barn to see. He's the kind of horse you work 365 days a year for.
JS: We talked a little last year about when you parted ways with the Jacksons and how painful it was. So to lose a client like that and to get a horse like this right around the same time, it must been good timing for you I'm guessing.
MM: It was certainly helpful at the time. Like I said, it was a funny situation with the Jacksons and I still don't know exactly what happened. But it's over with now and I just look forward to these horses I have now. There's nothing I can do about that situation and I just have to make the best of what my situation is now.
JS: The Breeders' Cup was obviously a heartbreaker and might have wound up costing Union Rags the Eclipse Award. How much of that sting is still there?
MM: The circumstances just didn't go our way. Whatever the circumstances were...whether (Hansen) got a good trip or we got a bad trip, human error happens in these things. There is not much we can do. We got an outside post, Javier (Castellano) did the best he could and it wasn't good enough. We're looking forward to a new season. Whether it cost him the 2-year-old championship or not I don't know. That will depend on what the voters use as a criteria. If they use the Breeders' Cup result as the ultimate criteria, it's a clear cut case. If they look at what else they did the rest of the year I think it will be close.
JS: Looking ahead, you've already stated that you're pointing Union Rags for the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby as his preps. If everything remains the same, that's still the plan?
MM: Of course. At this point, after only one breeze and if you can have a plan, we'll try to do those two races. If we have to go to plan B somewhere along the line then that's what we'll do. He'll be nominated to other races and if we have to do something different where we feel he needs another race, we'll just make a little detour.
JS: I know you don't like doing comparisons to Barbaro, but at this point can you compare the two in any way?
MM: Well, they are both on the same track. Of course, Barbaro was undefeated at this point. Barbaro was obviously a terrific horse and Union Rags has to get there yet. But I don't see any distance limitations with him and everything else is encouraging. They are both big, athletic horses with lots of ability. And they both seem to like to win.
Union Rags has kind of done everything so far, from running close to the pace to off the pace. His temperament is such that you could really do almost anything with him. Personality wise, he even has a little bit easier temperament than Barbaro. But once you got the saddle on Barbaro he was all business.