(Originally published in the April 7, 2012 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Evan Hammonds
Racing hasn’t exactly been portrayed in the most favorable light lately. But while there are plenty of national issues that need to be addressed—and they will be addressed—the upper end of the sport seems to be humming along quite well. As we rev up for a furious run-up to the first Saturday in May, the weekend’s results in seven-figure stakes at Gulfstream Park, Fair Grounds, and Dubai show there is plenty of strength and intrigue in the twisty-turny road that is the Triple Crown trail, where hype—not hope—oftentimes springs eternal.
Such was the case in the March 31 Florida Derby (gr. I) where Union Rags was a huge underlay at 2-5 before finishing third behind Chuck and Maribeth Sandford’s Take Charge Indy and 31-1 shot Reveron. A rivalry between El Padrino and Union Rags failed to materialize as the former finished fourth.
Despite failing to catch the leaders at Gulfstream, Union Rags remains the likely favorite for the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). He closed out the third and final Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool as the 9-2 favorite of the 24 betting interests.
Union Rags seemingly has it all: the good looks, the pedigree, the storied connections of breeder/owner Phyllis Wyeth…and some excuses. Off his monster comeback effort in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), he may have “bounced” and run a sub-par effort in his second start. Jockey Calvin Borel and Take Charge Indy also were allowed to set a moderate early pace on a track that favored front-runners throughout the day. Lessons to be learned? That’s why they call them preps.
Union Rags also has a trainer who has been down this road before. Michael Matz won the 2006 Florida Derby with Barbaro, who didn’t nearly have the rep Union Rags does at this stage of the game. Many questioned Matz’ ability to train Barbaro up to the Kentucky Derby off a five-week layoff, but not only did he prove them wrong, he perhaps set a new template for getting a horse Derby ready.
Since then, the winner of the Kentucky Derby has had an average of 30 days off before starting in the Run for the Roses.
Let’s not take anything away from Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy. All he did was take the race by the throat from the beginning and never let go. He has a Derby-type pedigree—A.P. Indy out of multiple two-turn grade I winner Take Charge Lady—and a three-time Derby-winning rider.
And, he’s another to come out of last year’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) to win a graded stakes this year, joining Hansen, Union Rags, Creative Cause, Alpha, Drill, and Daddy Long Legs.
Daddy Long Legs’ victory March 31 in the $2 million UAE Derby Sponsored by the Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (UAE-II) has his Coolmore interests thinking about visiting the Twin Spires, which would add a nice layer of intrigue to the Derby. He seemed to have plenty in the tank after running 13/16 miles over Meydan’s Tapeta synthetic surface that was labeled as “tiring” by some of the jockeys on the World Cup program.
Few imagined what could, and did, happen the following day at Fair Grounds, where 109-1 shot Hero of Order led the order of finish in the $1 million Louisiana Derby (gr. II). Plucky trainer Gennadi Dorochenko saddled Hero of Order for the ninth time at the New Orleans track this meet but failed to nominate the son of Sharp Humor for the Triple Crown, a slip that may keep him out of the Derby lineup according to the rules.
Despite having the graded earnings to make the starting gate, without being a nominee he has to rank behind those on the list that are nominated. If more than 20 pass the entry box, or 24 for the new also-eligible list, he’s on the outside looking in.
The business figures for the weekend in South Florida were robust to say the least. Gulfstream officials reported a record crowd of approximately 18,000 on hand at the “new” Gulfstream Park on Derby day with total handle of $24.6 million, nearly $5 million more than the mark set a year ago. On-track handle March 31 was $2.98 million, breaking last year’s record by nearly 33%.
A day of quality racing—seven stakes on the card—and the name recognition of a horse like Union Rags is what brings ’em out.
The results of the weekend should continue to bring ’em out…through May 5, and hopefully beyond.