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Monday, April 2, 2012
Union Rags will be fine

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

At 2-5 and with legions of supporters, Union Rags was supposed to win the Florida Derby, and anything less than a decisive victory has to be considered a disappointment. But nothing that happened Saturday at Gulfstream Park should give anyone any reason to jump off his bandwagon. Considering the horror trip he had, considering that the real objective is the Kentucky Derby, he was good enough.

It was not Julien Leparoux's finest hour. Union Rags got pinned on the inside on the first turn and didn't really get out of the jackpot until the eighth pole. But that was after he got shuffled back, losing ground on his rivals. At some point Leparoux probably should have tried to circle the field. Instead, the jockey hoped to find a seam along the inside, and by the time he got one it was too late.

Would he have won with a clean trip? It's impossible to say. But he never had a chance to win.

Apparently, Leparoux was stung by some of the criticism he received afterward.

" … to all the ones that says (sic) that I sucked, I will prove you wrong," he posted on his Twitter account.

Leparoux had a bad race. It happens, and, besides, it was not entirely his fault. On El Padrino, Javier Castellano was clearly determined to box in Union Rags for as long as possible.

Castellano has also taken some criticism from those who believe he was more intent on getting his old mount, Union Rags, beat than winning aboard El Padrino. That's unfair. When you're going against a 2-5 shot, why not ride to try to beat that horse? In a sense, he accomplished his mission. The only reason Castellano didn't win was because El Padrino didn't have it.

El Padrino and Union Rags both move on now with their reputations somewhat tarnished. But Union Rags might even be better off due to the experience. He got an education in adversity in the Florida Derby and he probably learned from it, something that could come in handy in the always rough-and-tumble Kentucky Derby.

Barring something spectacular happening in the last few preps, Union Rags will still be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, and a deserving one. The best horse oftentimes doesn't win the Derby, but Union Rags is still the best horse.

Barring something spectacular happening in the last few preps, Union Rags will still be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, and a deserving one.

The Florida Derby was won by Take Charge Indy, who became the eighth runner out of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile to come back at three and win a graded stakes race. That happened just a few hours after Daddy Long Legs, who was 12th in the Juvenile, won the UAE Derby. Twelve of the 13 Juvenile starters have come back and raced this year and, as a group, they have accounted for wins in the Gotham, Fountain of Youth, San Felipe, Florida Derby, San Vicente, Withers, UAE Derby and the Tampa Bay Derby. In addition, three horses yet to come out of the Juvenile and win have run second in stakes. They are Dullahan, Optimizer and Speightscity. Fort Loudon, off the board in all three starts this year, is the only Juvenile bust.

Some 25 hours after Union Rags was beaten in the Florida Derby, there was a much bigger upset in Louisiana, where 109-1 shot Hero of Order won the Louisiana Derby. On paper, this looked like one of the weakest major Derby prep races in recent years and it looked even worse at the finish line. Hero of Order needed 1:50.13 to get around the track, 2.49 seconds slower than the time of the New Orleans Handicap. Going in, Hero of Order was 1 for 13 lifetime with career earnings of $57,277 and isn't even nominated for the Triple Crown.

Trainer Gennadi Dorochenko plucked the horse out of the 2010 Keeneland September sale for just $3,000. He was batting a miserable 3 percent for the year, but doesn't have to win again in 2012 for this to be the best year of his career. He stole $600,000 with a nothing horse.

With so many Derby prep races out there and with a lot of trainers now opting to give their horses two Derby preps and not three, you're going to start seeing a lot more races like this one. The sport would benefit if the number of preps were cut in half, but that's not going to happen.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.