(Sports Network) - Even though Union Rags did not win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, and therefore finished second in the 2-year-old of the year voting, most observers listed him as the winter book Kentucky Derby favorite.
The Michael Matz-trained colt did not disappoint in his 3-year-old debut when he obliterated a field of seven in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. With jockey Julien Leparoux aboard for the first time, the bay colt scored by four lengths even though he was hand-ridden throughout.
Union Rags took command around the far turn with an easy 23 4/5-second fourth- quarter and then drew off through the short stretch to win the 1 1/16-mile race in a sharp 1:42 3/5. One could only imagine how much larger the margin of victory or how much faster the time would have been had Leparoux pushed Union Rags through the stretch.
Besides the ease of victory, the most impressive aspect of the performance was how he ran a straight course inside the final three-eighths. In four of his 2- year-old starts, Union Rags bore out badly down the stretch twice, including once in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile when he lost by only a head to Hansen.
Outside of his tendency to drift out, what also has kept some pundits from having him in the top spot in their Derby lists is a pedigree that might not be geared to 10 furlongs.
His sire, Dixie Union, won the nine-furlong Haskell at Monmouth Park in 2000, but it was the slowest running since 1978. His two other top colts - Gone Astray and Grasshopper - both failed to win any races at the Kentucky Derby distance, although the latter ran second to Street Sense in the 2007 Travers.
Union Rags' dam side has probably helped him succeed up to this point. His dam, Tempo, is a daughter of Terpsichorist, a former long-distance turf runner in New York and New Jersey. Tempo's sire Gone West has sent out dozens of winners, including Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup champions Commendable, Speightstown, Da Hoss and Johar. In addition, Union Rags gives the impression of a horse very capable of winning at 1 1/4 miles.
The once-beaten star was 7-1 in Pool 1 of the Future Wager and then bet down to 4-1 in Pool 2. An impressive victory in the Florida Derby might have him closer to 5-2 in Pool 3.
Speaking of odds, Union Rags will be the odds-on favorite on Saturday with trainer Todd Pletcher's El Padrino the second choice. The Risen Star winner was 12-1 in Pool 2, the fourth choice behind the field, Union Rags and Hansen. He also closed at 16-1 in Pool 1.
El Padrino has already been the 1 1/8-mile distance - a third-place finish in the Remsen Stakes as a 2-year-old. Since then, he's won a 1 1/16-mile allowance race here at Gulfstream Park, and then the Risen Star, also at 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds.
The chestnut colt is one of a handful of contenders with more than one Beyer Speed Figure over 98. On the downside, some could argue he hasn't faced quality competition and only beat a previously unheralded Mark Valeski by a nose at 4-5 odds in the Risen Star.
Graded earnings are not a concern for El Padrino, so having him battle Union Rags to gauge his level of excellence is not a bad decision a month and change away from the Kentucky Derby.
Still, it is doubtful El Padrino has what it takes to bring down Union Rags, especially off such a hard-fought victory in his previous outing. The 1 1/8- mile Florida Derby distance should not affect his chances of winning but beware of betting on the son of Pulpit in the Kentucky Derby. Pulpit has not had much success siring 1 1/4-mile horses, with Ice Box, a troubled second in Run for the Roses, the lone exception.
FLORIDA DERBY LONGSHOTS
With Union Rags and El Padrino expected to take all the money, the rest of the field will sport decent odds and a few bear watching.
Reveron already has a win over the track in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day. The son of Songandaprayer has won three of his last four races and his only loss came in the Sam. F. Davis.
Breaking from post 10 in that race, Reveron was forced to run wide but made a winning move heading into the stretch. Unfortunately, he hung inside the final furlong and lost by to Battle Hardened by 1 1/4 lengths with Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective only a nose ahead of Reveron for second.
Take Charge Indy finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but has raced just once since - a second to El Padrino - in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park.
Trainer Patrick Byrne put all of his eggs in one basket after withdrawing Take Charge Indy from the Tampa Bay Derby due to an outside post. With less than $100,000 in graded earnings, the son of A.P. Indy must hit the board just to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, and the two-month layoff might work to his disadvantage against top-notch opposition.
News Pending might be the wise-guy selection after a gritty second-place performance in the Fountain of Youth. The Dale Romans-trained colt put away the fleet Discreet Dancer in that race before being engulfed by Union Rags. Don't expect News Pending to battle for the lead in the Florida Derby, particularly since Romans entered the maiden, Z Camelot, in the race. However, if he can close the way he did in his previous turf efforts, the son of Harlan's Holiday should be able to add to his $80,000 graded earnings total.
The Florida Derby choice is for Union Rags to blow away this field and win by a comfortable three lengths. Reveron will surprise and take second with El Padrino third.
THE JEFF FRANK "DIRTY DOZEN"
1) Union Rags - The best of a solid crop;
2) I'll Have Another - Still overlooked by the general public;
3) Gemologist - Will be favored in the Wood;
4) Creative Cause - The probable Santa Anita Derby choice;
5) El Padrino - Might be a bit overrated;
6) Dullahan - The top closer of the Dirty Dozen;
7) Alpha - The fact his connections do not want any part of Union Rags or Hansen is extremely telling;
8) Hansen - The Derby distance will always be an issue;
9) Howe Great - All this under-the-radar colt does is win;
10) Bodemeister - Arkansas should be his destination instead of California;
11) Mark Valeski - Must win the Louisiana Derby to remain on the list;
12) Daddy Nose Best - Looked good winning the Sunland Park Derby
03/29 09:48:53 ET