Sentimental Derby choice: Union Rags

The Kentucky Derby is coming! The Kentucky Derby is coming!

It's this exciting! Flickr: atomicshed

Okay, anyone who knows me knows that I love the Breeders’ Cup best of all the big races. My husband and I treat the fall championships like other, less interesting people treat the Super Bowl (am I allowed to type that, or should it be ‘Big Game’? Oh well. Sue me. Any publicity is good publicity.) with plenty of really unhealthy foods we’ll regret the next day (or month) and once, memorably, a case of Coors Light. I had to feed the neighbor’s cows that evening, couldn’t get too tipsy or I’d get gored… you know, country life.

But you can’t deny the draw of the Triple Crown, the magnetism of those few weeks of hope, this could be the year, we could have a new super horse… in the words of the New York State Lottery, “Hey, you never know!”

Also, since we now live in the city, the Belmont Stakes is completely non-negotiable. We have to be there. So if there is a freak Triple Crown incident, we will be there!

The thing about the Derby, of course, is that you really do never know. The big two-year-olds are growing, and they won’t all be as impressive in the spring of their three-year-old year as they might have been when they were precocious infants. The thing about horses, as we all know, is that they have awkward growing stages. A Grade 1 stakes horse who suddenly finds himself butt-high as his body prepares to add an inch or two is not going to run the same way he did before his body changed on him. And it will take time for him to find his balance and for his muscles to respond accordingly to his new body.

It’s a hazard of racing young horses: they change on you.

But we must have a favorite, and I’m sure I’m no exception when I say I love love love Union Rags.

What’s not to love?

Union Rags is trained by Michael Matz, after all, and if you were a show-jumping fan-girl in the 80s and 90s, then you know what I’m talking about. Apparently, he also saved a bunch of kids from an airplane crash. I missed that. But this is what I do remember about Michael Matz:

Michael Matz riding Thoroughbred star Jet Run, photo from The Show Jumping Hall of Fame

That’s Matz with retired racehorse Jet Run, who is also in the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. According to, Jet Run had seven starts, never hit the board, and retired with $956 in earnings. He went on to win multiple championships as a show-jumper. From his entry at the Show Jumping Hall of Fame:

The 16.3-hand bay gelding turned out to be one of the most consistent “big occasion” show jumpers of his era, winner of no less than three Pan American Games Gold Medals (two for the U.S., one for Mexico), the World Cup Final, the President’s Cup, the AGA Horse of the Year title, two World Championship Bronze Medals, and innumerable Grand Prix and individual competitions.

Like another legendary show-jumper, Rodney Jenkins, who turned to training racehorses, Matz has had a pretty successful second career. (Perhaps he could lobby for retired show-jumping riders to get second chances?) He had that horse Barbaro, you remember him, right? So he’s already won the Kentucky Derby once.

He could do it again, with handsome Union Rags, and I wouldn’t complain.

Union Rags, who has only missed the winner’s circle once in five starts, (and that was for a second, behind the bizarrely bright white Hansen, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) has his own compelling story. Says Teresa Genaro, writing for

He was sold as a yearling by the woman who bred him, Phyllis Wyeth, wife of artist Jamie Wyeth; months later, she dreamed about the horse and bought him back as a two-year-old for $245,000 more than she sold him for. So far, he’s earned nearly $1.1 million.

And Frank Mitchell, writing at the Paulick Report, writes about the history of the Mills, Wyeth’s parents, who bred and competed some truly great stakes horses, including Union Rag’s dam-sire, Gone West. 

Union Rags is also the last foal of his dam, the Gone West mare Tempo, because Wyeth pensioned the mare after she produced the colt rather than risk her welfare with further breeding. Part of the reason for Wyeth’s concern for Tempo is surely the sentimental tie that the now-20-year-old mare has with Wyeth’s family.

Very, very high on the unwritten list of things I love in horse-racing (I should really write that list up) is sentimental owners with home-breds. You might recall there is a decided dash of sentimentality in my novel The Head and Not The Heart. I am utterly against sentimentality, except when I’m not. And people who love their horses get tons and tons of bonus points in my book.

In addition to all of the wonderful connections of this horse, you can’t deny the obvious: he is very talented, and clearly loves his job. I give you Exhibit A: Union Rags soaring down the stretch of Gulfstream, ears pricked, as he takes the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes in a rush of power that will give you goose-bumps. I’d embed it for you, but Gulfstream would prefer you go to the YouTube site to watch it. (We had a conversation about this. I go to the bat for you, readers, I really do.)

Watch it yet?


Close your mouth, you’re catching flies.

Union Rags: he’s the obvious choice, he’s the amateur’s choice, he’s the “oh what a pretty horse” choice, he’s the sentimental choice. He’s all of those things. But he’s also my choice! Keep flying, Rags.


1 Comment

Filed under Media Coverage, Outside Sites, Racing

One response to “Sentimental Derby choice: Union Rags

  1. sharon K.

    What a great article Natalie! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! I have a Google alert for all things UNION RAGS and ZENYATTA! :O) I have watched the FOY many, many times since he’s won! I was watching the race as it was streaming live on the Gulfstream site… I also had major goosie’s (goose bumps)as I watched him run! I think he has an awesome team, obvious caring owners, and wonderful fans! He is my Derby and everything else pick! Best of luck to his connections! I can’t wait to see him run in the Florida Derby! Gosh…how am I going to wait 4 more weeks???? LOL!