The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Union Rags Bloodstock Adviser Russell Jones
Russell B. Jones Jr. founded Pennsylvania-based Walnut Green Bloodstock with his late brother, Richard I.G. Jones, in 1980, and operated the agency for 25 years until selling it to Mark Reid and partners in 2005. Jones stayed on as president of the company for three additional years during a transition period. Since then, he has advised a small group of friends and clients, including Phyllis Wyeth, owner and breeder of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, who was foaled at the Royal Oak Farm operated by Jones’ niece Braxton, and her husband, Damian Lynch, in Paris, Ky.
How did Phyllis Wyeth end up with Tempo, the dam of Union Rags?
She got the mare from her mother (Alice du Pont Mills). I don’t remember the terms. She got a few mares from her mother at the late stages of her life.
Does she own any other mares at this point?
She owns six mares, plus Tempo, who has been retired from breeding and is turned out.
What went into the decision to breed Tempo to Dixie Union?
It was the second time we did it. The first time we did it was because it was a physical match. We thought we’d be adding some speed to the pedigree, and I loved the horse (Dixie Union) when he went to stud: a Dixieland Band stud and from a damn good family. He wasn’t exceptionally high priced.
The first time we got an absolutely lovely horse (Geefour), but he wasn’t sound in his wind. He was still stakes placed and earned over $100,000. He was a good horse. When Tempo had her foal by During (named Durante), two years before Union Rags, the mare almost died. She lay in the stall for 40 minutes before she got up. We thought we’d never breed her again.
She stayed at home, raised that foal, and it was only the next year when she was back in good health that Phyllis said, ‘I’d really like to get one more out of that mare.’ She loved that Dixie Union so much. So we sent Tempo to Braxton in Kentucky. We thought there was a better opportunity to care for her in Lexington, but there were no complications whatsoever.
Once Phyllis got to look at that first foal, she did want a filly the second time around, but she thought she cashed in already and wasn’t going to go back to the well again. Union Rags came back up here about the time he was six weeks old, then never left Pennsylvania until he was sold as a yearling in Saratoga. He would have been a Pennsylvania-bred but we thought we had a better chance of getting a live foal and saving the mare by foaling in Kentucky.
Before Union Rags shipped back up here, Damian took a shot of the horse on his phone, emailed it to Phyllis, and said, ‘Now you’ve got your Derby winner.’
How disappointing was the Kentucky Derby?
Shocking. To finish seventh, beaten 10 lengths and have the hard luck we had, thinking we were going in with the best horse. It was a real bummer. We’d gotten a pretty substandard ride from Julien (jockey Leparoux) in the Florida Derby. In both cases we thought we had the best horse. Maybe it wasn’t Julien’s fault, but somebody had to take the hit for it. Johnny (Velazquez) had tried to get on the horse since last fall, but he had a commitment to go to Dubai at the same time as the Florida Derby, so that’s how we ended up with Julien. We wanted a commitment for three races and he Johnny couldn’t give it to us.
When you have such a strong female family like Union Rags has, with Terpsichorist and Glad Rags, is there anything more than luck involved in getting traits from those mares into a foal?
It’s mostly luck. You go and do your analysis. You know what the pedigree looks like. That mare Tempo has been bred to a number of pretty good horses but hadn’t come up with anything close to this. We had a Cat Thief filly – big and scopy, sold her for not much money ($13,000 as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic). She earned over $200,000 (6-6-6 from 29 starts) and wound up running for about $7,500. Phyllis claimed her. So she’s got Union Rags’ half sister, who was a hickory filly but not that much talent.
How involved was she with the racing and breeding stable of her parents, James and Alice Mills?
She was very involved as part of the family and as an observer. When her parents were both alive, she didn’t own any flat horses at that point. It was only after her parents were gone she started picking up these mares. Something in her said, ‘I’ve got to look after these horses.’ After Union Rags won the Champagne she said, ‘My parents would be over the moon with what I’ve done.’ That was a very emotional day.
For readers who don’t know that much about James and Alice Mills, can you summarize the scope of the Hickory Tree Farm operation and some of the highlights?
They had a handful of good horses with Woody Stephens in New York and Jimmy Murphy in Maryland (including champion Devil’s Bag and Gone West, the broodmare sire of Union Rags). They’d have between three and eight horses in training and a broodmare band of about 20. They’d foal them and raise them in Virginia. Bred mostly to Kentucky horses.
How and when did you become involved with the family?
I’ve known Phyllis about 50 years. Before she got hurt she and I used to ride point-to-point races and I knew her as someone who participated as a rider. She was a gorgeous young girl and had a high level of enthusiasm. She was a wonderful girl to be around and I took great pleasure in being around her. We became great buddies over the years.
At some point, and I can’t tell you when – probably the late 1970s or early ‘80s – Phyllis asked would you ever consider helping my family. She felt they weren’t keeping up with it as well as they should have. It wasn’t long before I was doing the matings, helping sell what they sold. I became enormously close to her mother, a gem of a woman. Her father was harder to be close to. They had separate stables because they could never agree on things.
What has the success of Union Rags meant to you?
It’s the satisfaction of being involved for a long time. It would be the highlight of my entire career with flat horses. Winning the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1975 as owner, trainer and rider of the winner Jacko – that was my highlight on that side of the business.
I won the Whitney for John Kluge and won a bunch of other good races. This is the highwater mark. Doing it for somebody I absolutely adore and cheer for her success every day of the week has been incredible.
I thought selling Walnut Green meant you were retiring. How active are you these days?
I did retire. I haven’t been doing this professionally. She’s not paying me. I’m doing it because I love Phyllis and love doing it.
I imagine you’ve already had a number of inquiries about Union Rags as a stallion prospect when his racing career is over. What can you tell me about him racing as a 4-year-old and a timeline on a decision for a stud farm?
There’s no timeline. The horse will make up her plans for her. At this point, every major player in the country has been in touch with us since the Champagne. She’s said to me, ‘Someday I’m not going to be able to own the horse, but right now I’m not selling.’ I tell her, ‘Phyllis he’s really expensive now,’ but she’s having too much fun. ‘I’m having the best time I’ve ever had in my life, so why would I sell him,’ she told me. She doesn’t have to be prudent financially and doesn’t want to have to share the decisions with anybody. It’s been very demanding on her physically, but she’s having so much fun. It’s been fun and it’s a great story for racing.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story referred to Braxton Lynch as Jones’ daughter. She is his niece. We regret the error.