Union Rags ready for Florida Derby

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- As good as Union Rags ran last time out in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, trainer Michael Matz expects an even better performance Saturday, when Union Rags heads the field in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby, which drew a field of nine Wednesday at Gulfstream Park.

Union Rags is the favorite not only for the Florida Derby, but for the Kentucky Derby, too. He is the 3-1 choice on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form 's national handicapper, and also is the 3-1 favorite on the line set by Mike Battaglia of Churchill Downs for Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which opens Friday and closes Sunday.

If not for the head of Hansen in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, Union Rags would be unbeaten in five starts as well as the reigning 2-year-old champion. In his only start since the Breeders' Cup, Union Rags romped to a four-length victory in the Fountain of Youth, a win that re-established his position as the ante-post favorite for the May 5 Derby.

"You never know how they are going to act after four months off," Matz said Wednesday morning, during a break at the Palm Meadows training facility, where he is based during the winter. "But I thought we couldn't have written it any better. We didn't have to use him that hard. I don't think it was a tough race on him. I can't see why he wouldn't make another move forward after that last race. But this is obviously a tougher race."

As Matz spoke, he was standing just a few yards from Union Rags, who was getting a bath after his routine gallop about 30 minutes earlier. Union Rags always has been advanced for his age, but he developed over the winter into an even more glorious-looking athlete.

"He's doing good right now," Matz said, a wide smile crossing his face.

"Mentally and physically, he did what he was supposed to do from 2 to 3," Matz added. "I just have to try and keep him happy now."

Union Rags drew post 6 when nine 3-year-olds were entered Wednesday in the Florida Derby, which will go as the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. Eastern. Chuck Streva of Gulfstream Park made Union Rags the 6-5 morning-line favorite.

El Padrino, winner of the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in his last start, is the 2-1 second choice. He drew post 8.

The only other horses less than 12-1 are Take Charge Indy (5-1), who was second to El Padrino in an allowance race here two months ago in his last start, and News Pending (8-1), second to Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth.

From the rail out, the Florida Derby field is Fort Loudon (Luis Jurado the rider), News Pending (Rajiv Maragh), Take Charge Indy (Calvin Borel), Neck 'n Neck (Edgar Prado), Z Camelot (Joe Bravo), Union Rags (Julien Leparoux), Bartolome (Jesus Castanon), El Padrino (Javier Castellano), and Reveron (Elvis Trujillo).

Bartolome, whose lone win in four starts came in his debut in September on a sloppy track at Calder, and Z Camelot, who is winless in four starts and has yet to finish in the money, were the surprise entrants. Streva made Bartolome 30-1 and Z Camelot 50-1.

Not entered, even as a tire kicker for 72 hours, was Alpha, even though trainer Kiaran McLaughlin at one point considered it. But after several twists and turns, Alpha is committed now to the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial next week at Aqueduct.

"He's going to work here Friday morning and then fly later Friday to New York," McLaughlin said Wednesday morning at Palm Meadows.

One consideration for McLaughlin is that Ramon Dominguez, who has ridden Alpha to victories in the Withers and Count Fleet in his last two starts, is expected to be riding again by the Wood after separating his collarbone earlier this month.

But Dominguez's status for Alpha could be impacted if Hansen, whom Dominguez rode to wins in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Gotham Stakes, winds up in the Wood. In that case, McLaughlin would need a replacement rider for Alpha. Hansen is under consideration for the Wood, but, as of now, is expected to run in the Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 14.

"We're going to run in the Wood, and we hope we will get to have Ramon," McLaughlin said. "Even if they change their mind with Hansen, we will run against Hansen."