With 19 world-class stallions currently on our roster, Lane’s End is North America’s premier stallion operation. But back in 1985, when we first opened our stallion division, we were a fledgling farm with a roster of just three. Leading the trio was DIXIELAND BAND, a son of the great Northern Dancer whose victories included the G2 Pennsylvania Derby and G2 Massachusetts H. By the time he passed away 25 years later, DIXIELAND BAND had staked his claim as one of Northern Dancer’s best stallion sons, and had helped secure Lane’s End’s future as an elite farm.
Among DIXIELAND BAND’s 117 stakes winners was DIXIE UNION, who proved not only his best son on the racetrack with wins in the G1 Haskell Invitational and G1 Malibu S., but who also was his best stallion son after being retired alongside him at Lane’s End. Picking up where DIXIELAND BAND left off, DIXIE UNION sired an impressive 40 stakes winners before his untimely death at the age of just 13. His stars included horses like Hot Dixie Chick, Dixie Chatter, Grasshopper, Most Distinguished, High Cotton, Justwhistledixie and many others.
Now, DIXIE UNION’s best racehorse, the 2012 standout three-year-old UNION RAGS, has been retired to Lane’s End, and we have every confidence that Phyllis Wyeth’s homebred will continue on in the tradition of his sire and grandsire.
Why are we so confident? Because UNION RAGS has all the ingredients of a top sire. He’s a big, two-turn horse who was nonetheless precocious at two, winning the G2 Saratoga Special S. in his second start in the G1 Champagne S. in his third. He has the pedigree, hailing from the potent Northern Dancer line and from a female family of stout influences that traces to High Hat (GB)’s champion juvenile daughter Glad Rags II. And he delivered on the track, winning five of his eight starts, including the G1 Belmont S. and G2 Fountain of Youth S., and earned nearly $1.8 million. Importantly, UNION RAGS was the only member of his generation to win Grade 1s on dirt as both a juvenile and a three-year-old.
In his blog, The Blood-Horse’s Steve Haskin waxed poetic about the aura that surrounded the colt as a juvenile and during the spring of 2012. “His name was UNION RAGS, the horse who seemingly had it all. He was big and beautiful and extremely talented. He was trained by Michael Matz, who had brought Barbaro into national prominence in 2006. He was owned and bred by Phyllis Wyeth of Chadds Ford Stable, whose remarkable story seemed destined to have its own chapter in the history books. He had shown his class, his speed, and his stamina by overcoming trouble to romp in the Champagne S. and just failed by a head in the G1 Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after racing very wide every step of the way. When he won the Fountain of Youth Stakes in his three-year-old debut, the words ‘Triple Crown’ were once again on everyone’s lips. If the drought was ever to end, this looked like the horse to do it.”
RAGS TO RICHES
UNION RAGS, sold by Wyeth as an FTSAUG yearling and then reacquired for $390,000 at FTSAUG juvenile, made a quiet debut at Delaware Park in July of 2011, when he rallied to a professional score in a five-furlong maiden dash. Michael Matz’s confidence in the colt was quickly revealed, however, when he opted to enter him in the Saratoga Special in his second career outing, an aggressive move from a conditioner known more for his patience. UNION RAGS made it look easy in the slop in the historic juvenile event, winning off by 7 1/4 lengths at the Spa. His win in the one-mile Champagne came in similarly facile fashion. Sent off as the 6-5 pick, he dispatched of future G1 Travers S. winner Alpha by 5 1/4 lengths, and talk began that this was no ordinary 2-year-old.
Wrote the Thoroughbred Times, “Despite a troubled trip in which the DIXIE UNION colt was steadied briefly on the backstretch and trapped behind a pocket of horses in midstretch while jockey Javier Castellano waited for an opening, Union Rags burst through willingly when an opening materialized and pulled away with authority. “He’s a big horse with a huge stride,” Castellano said. “He lost all the momentum [early], but I decided [coming from behind horses] was my best opportunity, and he did it. When he saw daylight, he took off. He’s a special horse.”
Daily Racing Form’s Steve Crist later offered, “I’ve been a UNION RAGS fan since…he ran one of the most professional races you’ll ever see from a two-year-old in winning the Champagne by 5 1/4 lengths. He had already shown versatility by winning sprints from both on and off the pace, but he showed another dimension in the Champagne, steadying and treading water until daylight appeared, and then taking over with authority when it finally did.”
The favorite once again in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, UNION RAGS raced four wide every step, and despite a green stretch run, finished second by just a head. If his fans were frustrated by that loss, he returned at three to show them he’d lost nothing after a short winter’s break, romping by four eye-catching lengths in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream.
The New York Times’ Bill Finley wrote, “There’s been a void in Michael Matz’s stable ever since Barbaro, a void that figured never to be filled. Barbaro…was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime horse. He still casts a large shadow, but six years later, Matz is on target to get back to Churchill Downs with another horse with immense talent and potential. UNION RAGS, an unlucky second in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, returned to the races Sunday at Gulfstream Park and turned in a Barbaro-esque performance in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth.”
Unfortunately, two more tough trips followed. Heavily favored in the G1 Florida Derby, he was perhaps given a too-confident ride on a track playing to speed. After stalking in fifth and then sixth, UNION RAGS nonetheless put in a huge late run to finished third, 1 1/4 lengths behind A.P. INDY’s Take Charge Indy. Things then went from bad to worse in the Derby, where he went postward as the 5-1 second choice and was the pick of, among other nationally known writers and commentators, Gary Stevens, Joe Drape, Jennie Rees, John Asher, Jill Byrne, Dave Grening, Caton Bredar, Mike Penna, Jerry Bossert, Pat Johnston, Jason Sandler, etc. Slammed hard shortly after the break, UNION RAGS was soon toward the back of a crowded 20-horse field. Forced to hit the brakes several times during the running of the race, he finally was able to find clear running room in the stretch, but by that point was some 14 lengths behind the leaders and, ultimately, had to settle for seventh by seven lengths.
But then UNION RAGS was finally given his chance to shine in the Belmont, and shine he did. Settled in the slipstream of Paynter as the eventual G1 Haskell Invitational winner set tepid splits, he was locked in behind horses in upper stretch, but punched through the narrowest of openings along the rail to get up and win by a head to the cheers of the New York crowd.
“Back in the spring, Michael Matz, the trainer of UNION RAGS, envisioned that he would be going for a Triple Crown sweep in the 144th Belmont S. on Saturday at Belmont Park,” wrote Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman. “He thought that much of UNION RAGS. But after a traffic-filled trip in the Kentucky Derby, Matz skipped the Preakness, and pointed for a new prize. UNION RAGS justified Matz’s confidence in the big, strapping colt. Under a clever ride from John Velazquez, Union Rags slipped through along the rail in the final furlong and caught pacesetting Paynter to win by a neck in a Belmont that proved thrilling…”
Matz said simply afterward, “We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential.”
IMPORTANCE OF THE BELMONT
There is always much talk about the importance of races like the G1 King’s Bishop S. and G1 Met Met as “sire-making” races. But a close inspection of the Belmont S. reveals that the third leg of the Triple Crown is a race that, for generations, has been hugely successful indicator of success in the stallion shed. Late greats like Native Dancer, Seattle Slew and our own A.P. INDY won the Belmont, and since the latter did so in 1992, no fewer than 12 of the 15 Belmont winners with runners aged three or up have gone on to sire Grade 1 winners. Horses like LEMON DROP KID, sire of the Grade 1 winners Richard’s Kid, Citronnade, Lemons Forever, Christmas Kid and Santa Teresita. Horses like Empire Maker, sire of Royal Delta, Pioneerof the Nile and Bodemeister. And young horses like Birdstone, sire of Derby winner Mine That Bird and Summer Bird; and Afleet Alex, sire of Saratoga Grade1 winners Afleet Express and Dublin.
It’s not hard to imagine why the Belmont is still such a revealing race: to win the Belmont, a horse must be a unique physical specimen. The Belmont demands a horse with good airways to see out the grueling 12 furlongs. The Belmont demands a horse with good action who is less likely to tire on Big Sandy’s surface. The Belmont demands tactical speed and the ability to shut that speed off if asked. And most importantly, the Belmont demands heart. It’s the first time and, these days, probably the last, a horse will go that far, and the outcome often comes down to a horse who simply refuses to relent down that long Belmont stretch. These are the traits breeders ultimately are looking for, and the traits that Belmont winners more often than not possess.
THE EXCEPTIONAL PEDIGREE
UNION RAGS has a pedigree uniquely suited for success in North America…and beyond. By a sire whose progeny excelled around a mile, UNION RAGS was produced from the Gone West mare Tempo, a fast filly who won two of her three lifetimes start, both sprinting six furlongs under the care of Bill Mott. While UNION RAGS gets his considerable speed from his sire and dam, he likely gets his endurance from his second dam Terpsichorist and her sire, Ninjinsky II. Terpsichorist was a Grade 2 winner of over $425,000 for trainer Woody Stephens, a rugged racemare who won 11 of her 28 starts and placed another nine times. Terpsichorist was versatile, too, winning from seven furlongs on the dirt in 1:22 1/5 at Saratoga, to setting a new course record at the Meadowlands in the 1 3/8-mile Rutgers S., to winning the G3 Long Island H. over 1 1/2 miles at Aqueduct. The Hickory Tree Farm homebred’s biggest win came in the G2 Sheepshead Bay H. at Belmont. UNION RAGS‘s third dam, meanwhile, is the talented Glad Rags II, heroine of the Railway S. at two in Ireland and the 1000 Guineas at three in Great Britain, and, in addition to Terpsichorist, dam of the group winners Mirthful Flirt and Gorytus.
This mix of precocity and endurance is a recipe that’s worked particularly well in the U.S. in the past decade, and it’s easy to imagine UNION RAGS‘s offspring performing at a top level on dirt, grass or synthetic. This should make his offspring commercially appealing not only to American-based owners looking for a Classic horse with speed, but to international buyers, as well.
BELIEVE IN THE UNION
The breeding game is hard. It’s tough to predict what sires will make it, and which ones won’t. In the end, it’s about giving yourself the best chance for success, and given his impeccable credentials, UNION RAGS does just that. Need more convincing? Make an appointment to stop by Lane’s End and inspect this grand-looking horse for yourself. He’ll make a believer out of you. He’s certainly made believers out of us.