Union Rags' special story

Mon, 30 Apr 19:07:00 2012

Union Rags is emerging as the sentimental favourite to win Saturday's 138th running of the Kentucky Derby because of the extraordinary tale of his trainer and owner.

HORSE RACING Kentucky Derby hopeful Union Rags - 0

The three-year-old colt was already looming as the horse to beat after his eye-popping performances on the race track but the survival stories of his connections has endeared him to the U.S. racing community.

His 61-year-old trainer Michael Matz is already a national hero in America. He won the 2006 Derby with the ill-fated Barbaro, who was unbeaten before he suffered a life ending injury at the Preakness Stakes.

Before starting a new career as trainer, Matz won a silver medal in equestrian at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but his sporting success was perhaps the least of his achievements.

Seven years earlier, he was on board United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Philadelphia when the plane crashed, killing 111 people.

Matz not only survived, he led three children sitting near him to safety, then returned to the burning fuselage and rescued an 11-month-old girl.

Union Rags' owner, Phyllis Wyeth, also survived a brush with death.

She worked for John F Kennedy during his presidency but her world was turned upside down in 1962 when she was involved in a head-on car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Confined to a wheelchair, she became an advocate for helping people with physical disabilities, while indulging in her love of breeding racehorses.

She bred Union Rags then sold him at auction, only to have a sudden change of heart when she dreamt that he would do great things.

So she bought back him back and sent the horse to Matz and now her dream is becoming a reality.

Union Rags won his first three races as a two-year-old last season before finishing an unlucky second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, when he nearly ran off the track.

The bay colt won his first race this season, the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, in dashing style before blotting his copybook when he finished third in the $1 million Florida Derby, his last race before the Kentucky Derby.

Had he won in Florida, he would almost certainly have been installed as the overwhelming favourite to win the first leg of the Triple Crown but there were some excuses.

He got trapped on the rails and could not get a clean run in the straight and Matz believes he has peaked at the right time.

Union Rags arrived at Churchill Downs last Thursday and was given his final serious preparation on Saturday morning.

With French-born jockey Julien Leparoux in the saddle, Union Rags completed five furlongs in just under a minute, one of the fastest workouts of the weekend.

"I thought he ran good. We wanted a strong work here and that was the plan all along," said Matz.

"Usually, when you try to get a horse to the Derby and try to plan everything, something goes awry one way or another. He's really been right on track."


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