By RICHARD ROSENBLATT, Associated Press
Six years after Barbaro, trainer Michael Matz has another star attraction for the Kentucky Derby.
Union Rags confirmed his status as the Derby front-runner with an impressive four-length victory in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes over the weekend at Gulfstream Park.
The win in his 3-year-old debut comes nearly four months after the colt's lone defeat — by a head to Hansen in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5.
"You never know after a four-month rest. Do you have the horse fit enough? Did you do this? Did you do that?" Matz said. "You ask yourself 51 questions. I guess we did it right this time."
Matz took a similar path with Barbaro, who won the 2006 Derby before breaking down in the Preakness and sustaining injuries that ultimately led to the colt being euthanized.
With his fourth win in five career starts, Union Rags remains No. 1 in the AP's latest Run to the Roses Top 10 list of Derby contenders. The Dixie Union colt will have one more prep — the $1 million Florida Derby on March 31 — before heading to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby on May 3.
Algorithms, scratched before Sunday's Fountain of Youth because of a splint bone injury in his right front leg, drops off the list after being ranked second. Hansen, set for his next start in Saturday's Gotham at Aqueduct, moves up to No. 2, with El Padrino moving in at No. 3 following Saturday's victory in the $300,000 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds.
It was a weekend of ups and downs for trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano.
Pletcher trains Algorithms, and his other entry in the Fountain of Youth, 4-5 favorite Discreet Dancer, finished a distant third. Castellano, meanwhile, gave up the ride aboard Union Rags to stay with Algorithms. On the plus side, Pletcher trains and Castellano rides El Padrino,
Union Rags breeder and owner Phyllis Wyeth was feeling confident in the winner's circle at Gulfstream Park.
"We were just out for a practice run. Can you believe that one? And we didn't want him to peak to soon," she said.
As for comparisons to Barbaro, Matz says, "Barbaro was an undefeated horse and we had a lot of confidence in him, there was no doubt. If it wasn't for maybe two feet he'd be undefeated, also," said Matz, referring to Union Rags. "I think he's a real good horse. He's a got a real good disposition and I certainly don't think there's any problem with distance with him."
1. Union Rags (Michael Matz, trainer; Julien Leparoux, jockey): Cruised to 4-length win in Fountain of Youth (G2) in 3-year-old debut. ... Lone loss in five starts was by a head in BC Juvenile (G1). .... Next start: Florida Derby (G1), Gulfstream, March 31. ... Derby future wager odds: 7-1.
2. Hansen (Mike Maker, Ramon Dominguez): Two-year old champ worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.95 Sunday at Gulfstream. ... Headed to New York this week for next prep. ... Runner-up in Holy Bull (G3) owns win over Union Rags. ... Next start: Gotham (G3), Aqueduct, Saturday. ... Odds: 26-1.
3. El Padrino (Todd Pletcher, Javier Castellano): Survived bumping foul claim to win Risen Star (G2) by a nose over Mark Valeski on Saturday. ... Next start: Louisiana Derby (G2), Fair Grounds, April 1. ... Odds: 16-1.
4. Gemologist (Pletcher, Castellano): Worked 5 furlongs in 1:03.88 Sunday at Palm Meadows. ... Unbeaten in three starts, all as 2-year-old . ... Next start: Rebel (G2), Oaklawn, March 17. ... Odds: 22-1.
5. Alpha (Kiaran McLaughlin, Dominguez): Withers (G3) winner worked 4 furlongs in 49.71 Saturday at Palm Meadows. ... Owned by Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin Stable. ... Next start: Wood Memorial (G1), Aqueduct, April 7. ... Odds: 19-1.
6. Secret Circle (Bob Baffert, Rafael Bejarano): Won division of Southwest (G3) in last start. ... Has four wins in five starts. ... Could run in Rebel (G2) on March 17. ... Next start: Undecided. Odds: 3-2 (mutuel field).
7. Fed Biz (Baffert, Bejarano): Allowance winner worked 6 furlongs in 1:16 last week at Santa Anita. ... Next start: San Felipe (G2), Santa Anita, March 10. ... Odds: 21-1.
8. Liaison (Baffert, Bejarano): CashCall Futurity (G1) winner worked 1 mile in 1:43 last week. ... Could end up in Rebel (G2) on March 17. ... Next start: Undecided. ... Odds: 56-1.