Journalists are supposed to be impartial, whether it's politics or horse racing, so when someone at Gulfstream Park handed me a “Union Rags” button to wear last Sunday, I furtively slipped it into my pocket rather than wear it on my lapel. I was at the track to watch all of the 3-year-olds in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, not to cheer for any one particular horse.
In truth, however, many of us covering this sport do pull for one horse over another, and it often has nothing to do with which one we may have backed at the pari-mutuel windows. A lot of us simply are rooting for the best “story.”
There was no better example of that than in 1990, when Frances Genter, a frail, elderly woman from Minnesota who had been in the Thoroughbred business for many decades, had her first real chance to win the Kentucky Derby with a big, strapping son of Fappiano named Unbridled.
Unbridled was a good 2-year-old, but no champion. He came to hand over the winter months for trainer Carl Nafzger, finishing third in the Fountain of Youth and then capturing the Florida Derby before heading north to the Bluegrass State. He won the Derby with an electrifying run as Nafzger provided a running commentary for “MIz Genter” in a moment captured by television cameras for all the ages.
It was wonderful and inspiring and emotional to see the longtime Derby dreams of Frances Genter come to fruition – a truly great story for people who love the sport.
There are parallels to this year's Union Rags saga, which is both heartwarming and unique.
The son of Dixie Union was bred in Kentucky by Phyllis M. Wyeth and races for her Chadds Ford Stable, but Union Rags arrived in the barn of trainer Michael Matz in a very roundabout way.
Because Wyeth, a more familiar face in the steeplechase world than at racetracks, usually only retained her home-bred fillies, Union Rags was sold as a yearling, at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale. Chris Brothers, the oldest of Hidden Brook Farm's Jack Brothers, picked the horse out of the Paramount Sales consignment and bought him for $145,000 on behalf of IEAH Stables, which had put together a plan to pinhook yearlings to the 2011 2-year-olds in training sale.
Russell Jones, a longtime breeder and consignor who for many years operated Walnut Green Bloodstock with his late brother, Richard, has served as adviser to Wyeth. His niece, Braxton Lynch, foaled Union Rags at the Royal Oak Farm she operates with her husband, Damian.
“We were pretty happy with the price,” Jones recalled, saying the stud fee for Dixie Union was $50,000 at that time.
Union Rags was sent to the Eddie Wood Training Center in Ocala, and he immediately stood out, Woods said.
“He was very big, very imposing, very classy acting,” said Woods. “He was a bit babyish to begin with, but came around pretty quickly because he's just a pure athlete. That's the way the good horses are.”
Woods said visitors to the training center were impressed by Union Rags as he went through the stages of his early conditioning. “We did quite a bit of showing at the farm,” he recalled, “and people were very complimentary of him. Russell stayed in touch with me on and off, because Mrs. Wyeth wanted to know how the colt was doing.”
Woods entered the Dixie Union colt in Fasig-Tipton's 2-year-olds in training sale, and by the time of the sale, Wyeth instructed Jones to look into buying him back on her behalf.
“I called her up and said there's some buzz about the horse,” Jones said. “She asked me how much it would take to get him and I said from what I was hearing it would be in the mid-to-upper $300,000 range. She said to bid up to $390,000, and that's exactly what we got him for.”
Some of those who were underbidders on Union Rags at Fasig-Tipton wore the widest smiles in the wake of the colt's dominating performance in the Fountain of Youth, his first start of the year. Union Rags, coming off his lone defeat when beaten a head by Hansen in the Nov. 5 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, wasn't even favored in the Fountain of Youth, going off as the second choice behind Discreet Dancer, a perfect two-for-two at Gulfstream Park for Todd Pletcher. Earlier in the day, Pletcher was forced to scratch G3 Holy Bull Stakes winner Algorithms from the Fountain of Youth when he popped a splint.
John Moynihan, bloodstock adviser to the Stonestreet Stables of Barbara Banke and her late husband, Jess Jackson, was one of those bidding on Union Rags. “We loved him,” said Moynihan, “but this is a great story.” Moynihan watched the Fountain of Youth from a suite adjacent to where the Union Rags victory party was taking place, with Phyllis Wyeth lighting up a trademark victory cigar in celebration. “You watch,” Moynihan told Jones. “He'll move up 10 lengths off this win.”
The immediate underbidder on Union Rags, according to Woods, was bloodstock agent Steve Young. He was representing Texan Ramona Bass, who was part of that celebration in Wyeth's suite at Gulfstream Park on Sunday.
It's hard not to like Wyeth. An equestrienne from her youth, she is the daughter of James and Alice DuPont Mills, who bred and raced many very good horses out of their Hickory Tree Farm in Virginia, including Gone West, the broodmare sire of Union Rags. The 71-year-old Wyeth broke her neck in a 1962 automobile accident, which ended her aspiring career as a steeplechase rider, and the effects of which forced her into a wheelchair about 10 years ago. She has been an avid conservationist and an advocate for improved access for the disabled. She is funny and tough and loves her horses.
Like Genter, Wyeth has been at this game for many years, and has never had a sniff at the Derby. What an an exciting run it would be for her and the sport to see it happen.
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