Can Union Rags Stretch Out?

Union Rags, who remained winter favorite for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) despite a narrow loss to Hansen (TrueNicks) in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), made his keenly-awaited seasonal debut in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II, video) at Gulfstream Park. The wait proved worthwhile, as Union Rags could hardly have been more impressive, settling behind a fairly modest pace, moving three wide round the far turn, and drawing off in the stretch to score by four lengths without ever being touched with the whip. In the process, he not only solidified his standing as Derby favorite, but also took his earnings past the $1 million mark.

Of course, the Fountain of Youth Stakes is only 8½ furlongs, so the question is, how well will Union Rags fare when he stretches out to ten furlongs in the Derby? The answer, as is so often the case with the modern North American Thoroughbred, is a definite "maybe."

Union Rags is by Dixie Union, who was euthanized in July 14, 2010, at the age of 13 due to a deteriorating neurological problem, and whose loss impacted not only the stallion's connections but also the breeding industry at large. Standing at $35,000 in his final season, Dixie Union was a horse who came up time and time again as a solid commercial option when mating plans were being made. A horse who seemingly never had a quiet season—he had six stakes winners in his first crop, followed by six, four, six, eight, and four stakes winners in the following crops, respectively—Dixie Union was not only an outstanding physical individual himself, but could be relied upon to sire good-looking offspring. He sired runners who were frequently precocious, both good colts and good fillies, and they found success in both the U.S. and Europe.

Dixie Union was also significant as the principal representative of a distinct branch of the Northern Dancer sire line. He was by Northern Dancer’s son Dixieland Band, a smart but not top-class runner who became a significantly better stallion than he was a racehorse. The sire of 117 stakes winners, Dixieland Band was represented by other useful, and generally regional, stallions such as Citidancer, Dixie Brass, Hook and Ladder, and Dixieland Heat, but Dixie Union was not only his best U.S.-raced son, but also his leading sire son.

In his unfortunately brief career, Dixie Union did his best to extend the line, and he already has at least five sons at stud. High Cotton – who had the 2011 Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) winner Currency Swap in his first crop – and millionaire Gone Astray (TrueNicks,SRO) are in Florida; the Norfolk Stakes (gr. I) victor Dixie Chatter (TrueNicks,SRO) in California; graded winner and Travers Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Grasshopper (TrueNicks,SRO) in Texas; and the speedy Bulldogger (TrueNicks), who stands in Arizona.

However, if there is to be an extension of the Dixieland Band branch of Northern Dancer into the second decade of the 21st century, it could be through Dixie Union’s son Union Rags. Hailed as the leader of his crop at 2 after winning his first three starts—a maiden at Delaware, the Saratoga Special (gr. II) which he took by 7¼ lengths, and the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) by 5¼ lengths—Union Rags was expected to set the seal on his domination of his generation in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). He looked likely to capture that event as he threw down his challenge in the stretch, but then hung to the right, allowing the game front-runner Hansen to snatch victory by a head. Hansen also emerged victorious in the year end voting for champion 2-year-old, although Union Rags shared top-spot with him on the Experimental Free Handicap.

Looking back to his sire for stamina clues, Dixie Union was a graded winner over six, 6½, and eight furlongs at 2. At 3, he did stretch out to nine furlongs to capture the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) over Captain Steve, Milwaukee Brew (TrueNicks,SRO), and More Than Ready (TrueNicks,SRO), but after finishing fourth over the ten furlongs of the Travers Stakes (gr. I), dropped back to seven furlongs to win the Malibu Stakes (gr. I). As a stallion, his influence has tended towards the speedier end of the spectrum, although Gone Astray, Justwhistledixie, and Dixie City were graded winners at nine furlongs, and Grasshopper ran Street Sense to a ½ length in the Travers Stakes (gr. I).

Union Rags is the best runner to date for his dam, the winning Gone West mare Tempo, who was 17-years-old when Union Rags was foaled. Tempo, who scored both her victories over six furlongs, is dam of seven winners from eight starters, and prior to Union Rags her most notable runner was Union Rags’ brother, Geefour, a four-time winner who was also stakes-placed in restricted company at Philadelphia Park. Tempo’s Rahy daughter, Tempo West, is dam of Vertiformer (by Dynaformer), winner in France of the Grand Prix du Lion d’Angers, and of War Pact, a War Front (TrueNicks,SRO) colt who last spring was second in the Prix de Suresnes, an early trial for the French Derby.

Union Rags’ second dam, Terpsichorist, was a long-winded daughter of Nijinsky II who excelled on the grass. Successful in the Sheepshead Bay Handicap (gr. II), Long Island Handicap (gr. III), Rutgers Handicap, Athenia Handicap, and Violet Handicap, she set course records for both 11 and 13 furlongs at The Meadowlands. At stud, Terpsichorist produced only one stakes winner, Marry Me Do, a tough son of Blushing Groom, who won four black-type events at Laurel Park. However, her grade II-placed Devil’s Bag daughter, Dancing Devilette, has continued her branch of the line very effectively, as she is dam of the graded winners Satans Quick Chick and Pratella, and stakes winner Satan’s Code. She’s also granddam of the graded scorer Blue Sky Holiday, and stakes-winning and multiple graded-placed Angliana. Another of Terpsichorist’s daughters, the unraced Wild Again matron Fortunee, is dam of stakes winners Cheiron and Deadline.

Terpsichorist was extremely well-bred, as she was not only by a English Triple Crown winner, but was out of Glad Rags II, champion filly in Ireland at 2, and heroine of the English 1,000 Guineas at 3. By Sir Winston Churchill’s Hyperion stallion High Hat out of the smart Irish sprinting mare Dryad, Glad Rags II went on to become an extremely important broodmare. The most famous, or perhaps notorious, of her offspring was Terpsichorist’s English-raced brother Gorytus, who is still held by those who at the time were employed by the powerful stable of his trainer, Dick (later Sir Richard) Hern, to be the most talented horse they had seen work on the famed West Ilsley gallops. In his first start, Gorytus took the listed Acomb Stakes at York by seven lengths, while breaking the 2-year-old course record. Following an even more impressive victory in the Champagne Stakes (gr. II), Gorytus was long odds-on to close his juvenile career by defeating three apparently over-matched opponents in the Dewhurst Stakes (gr. I). Once again, Gorytus gave a startling display, but this time it was startlingly bad, as he rapidly faded from contention to finish more than 30 lengths behind the winner, Diesis. Rumors of foul-play and illness abounded, but despite rigorous examination, no evidence of either was ever found. Although he raced on at 3 in England and at 4 in the U.S., Gorytus never showed a shadow of his earlier form, and over time those connected with him have come to believe that he just lost interest in racing. Gorytus’ stud career was another anti-climax, as he sired just seven stakes winners, the only group I winner being Davsoyan, who achieved that honor in Brazil.

Glad Rags II produced a third stakes winner in the shape of Mirthful Flirt, a Raise a Native daughter who won the Kingsclere Stakes in England, and the Golden Rod Stakes (gr. III) and Flirtation Stakes in the U.S. Subsequently, Mirthful Flirt became dam of the Cowdin Stakes (gr. II) scorer What’s Dat, and granddam of Belmont Stakes (gr. I) victor Colonial Affair (out of Snuggle, another daughter of Nijinsky II). Glad Rags II is also ancestress of numerous other major winners, including multiple graded stakes winner Stark South (by Dixieland Band, the grandsire of Union Rags); Dreams Gallore, who took the Mother Goose Stakes (gr. I); Prince of Birds, successful in the Irish 2,000 Guineas; and Sudan, whose credits include the Gran Premio di Milano (gr. I). Overall, this looks something like the combination of stretching-out miler speed on the sire’s side, and stamina in the female line which has worked quite well as formula for a Derby horse. However, Union Rags’ brother Geefour did his best work sprinting, although he was second over a mile and 70 yards in a claimer at Presque Isle Downs. Of course, brothers can, and do, inherit very different genetic make-ups, and we’ve always contended that a horse doesn’t necessarily need to be a true ten-furlong runner to win over that distance against his contemporaries in the spring.

Interestingly enough, the TrueNicks Enhanced Report for Union Rags does show that three of the four horses that have shown the most stamina of Dixie Union’s stakes winners—Gone Astray, Dixie City, and Grasshopper—are all, like Union Rags, products of the Dixie Union/Mr. Prospector cross. That cross has produced no less than 17 stakes winners from 114 starters (11%), eight of them graded. Despite the successes of Gone Astray, Dixie City, and Grasshopper, the average winning distances for the colts bred on the cross is 7.03 furlongs, slightly less than the average distance over which they have been asked to race, indicating that the nick is not exactly a source of stamina.

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