It is now time. After nearly four months away from the races and six weeks away from the racetrack, Union Rags is back Sunday at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. The colt, now three years old and a giant at nearly 17 hands, will race in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes against what is the most difficult field of three-year-olds assembled in 2012.
They call these prep races for a reason. It is not about the last Sunday in February. It is about the first Saturday in May. So, the "what" (the result) might not be as significant as the "how," as in how Union Rags runs.
The Kentucky Derby has been Michael Matz's goal since the trainer first gauged the depth of the colt's talent last summer. Owner Phyllis Wyeth sold the colt in the summer of 2010, but had such a strong, recurring dream about him that she bought him back in February 2011. Since then, Union Rags has earned $858,800 on the track and was a diminishing head from being an unbeaten two-year-old champion.
Like Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Barbaro, Union Rags has those southeastern Pennsylvania connections that dominated the Triple Crown races from 2004 to 2006.
After losing the Nov. 5 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Union Rags was sent immediately to South Florida. The colt got away from the track for some rest, but has been back in training for more than two months at Palm Meadows Training Center, 50 minutes north of Gulfstream. He has been galloping daily and has had six recorded workouts since his first one on Jan. 11.
"We have him about as fit as we can possibly get him, without having a race in him," Matz said.
Sunday's race is difficult because trainer Todd Pletcher, with his 32 Triple Crown nominees, has entered two of his best -- Algorithms and Discreet Dancer, both unbeaten and basically untested. Each also is in training at Palm Meadows.
"Pletcher has so many horses," Matz said, "I wouldn't know which one (Algorithms) was. I'm sure I saw him, and I'm sure I saw Discreet Dancer."
Matz knows they are talented. Algorithms won his three starts without much difficulty. In the Jan. 29 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, the colt crushed two-year-old champion Hansen, the only horse to finish in front of Union Rags. Discreet Dancer won his debut by nearly 10 lengths and his second start by more than five lengths. Both colts have two starts at this Gulfstream meet.
Union Rags will be at a bit of a disadvantage Sunday, but this is a process.
"I don't know what to expect, because those horses have been running (this year)," Matz said. "(Union Rags) hasn't run a bad race yet, and I don't expect him to run a bad race. But when you have horses that have already run twice down there and run pretty impressively, you just never know, when you haven't run in four months, what's going to happen."
When Algorithms won the Holy Bull, his jockey was Javier Castellano, the regular rider for Union Rags. Matz knew then Castellano would have a decision to make, as both colts were being pointed for the same race.
"For three (straight) Sundays, every time I (saw Castellano), I said. 'Are you sure there's no problem?' " Matz said. "He said, 'No, Michael, there's no problem.' " The jockey would stay on Union Rags.
Then, one day, five agents called Matz looking for the mount on Union Rags. Word was out that Castellano was wavering. Eventually, he chose Algorithms. It was a business decision, because Pletcher has far more stakes-quality horses than Matz, and Castellano wanted to stay in his good graces.
"It wasn't like he didn't get in trouble in some of the other (races) he rode him in," Matz said.
In fact, the colt overcame Castellano to win the Champagne Stakes. And the rider saved no ground in the BC Juvenile loss.
Matz chose the brilliant young French rider, Julien Leparoux, who has dominated racing in Kentucky. Leparoux, who started riding in America in 2005, already has won more than 1,500 races. His mounts have earned $80 million. He will ride Union Rags for the first time on Sunday.
"I'm not upset at Javier," Matz said. "I don't blame him for sticking with those horses."
Union Rags was a brilliant two-year-old, demonstrating the acceleration that separates the nice horses from the special horses. His two-year-old speed figures were not overwhelming, but the colt had a presence. He will have to run faster now to keep up with the top colts in his class.
"We haven't really done anything to set him down and go really fast," Matz said of the workouts. "I think he's fast enough."
The races will determine whether Union Rags has gotten faster. That is the time to ask for speed. On looks, he is already there.
"He's a big boy right now," Matz said. "He stands out."
They took Union Rags down to Gulfstream to get him used to the paddock.
"He walked around there like he owned the place," Matz said. "I'm sort of excited about getting started with him."
The Fountain of Youth will be run at a mile and a sixteenth. If all goes well, Matz plans to run Union Rags back in the March 31 Florida Derby. Then, it will be on to Louisville.
Even though Castellano decided to trade places, Matz said he would not trade horses with anybody.
The trainer has liked Union Rags from the start. He still likes him. Union Rags will be No. 7 in the eight-horse field. The first step to the Derby will be at 5:13 p.m. Sunday.