CHAMPAGNE STAKES | PURSE: $300,000 | GRADE 1 | 2-YEAR-OLD | ONE MILE
Heavily favored Union Rags, forced to wait for room in traffic, slipped past pacesetter Right to Vote on the outside near mid-stretch and drew off to capture the $300,000 Champagne Stakes in dominating style by 5 1/4 lengths at Belmont Park Oct. 8.
The unbeaten Union Rags, romping winner of the Saratoga Special in the slop Aug. 15, heads for the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile as the potential favorite at Churchill Downs Nov. 5. He is three-for-three in his career.
The Champagne, which attracted eight 2-year-olds, is a Breeders' Cup Challenge Win & You're In event. Uncle Mo won last year's Champagne before taking the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and national 2-year-old honors.
Ridden by Javier Castellano, Union Rags returned to the winner's circle for Phyllis Wyeth's Chadds Ford Stable and trainer Michael Matz. Wyeth bred the bay colt in Kentucky. The son of Dixie Union was a $390,000 Fasig-Tipton Florida buy as a select 2-year-old in February. He was consigned by Eddie Woods, agent.
The only stakes winner in the field, Union Rags was sent off at 6-5 and completed the one-turn mile in 1:35.55. Second choice Alpha edged 26-1 Right to Vote to take the runner-up spot.
Matz opted to pass the Three Chimneys Hopeful at Saratoga to wait for the Champagne, so Union Rags came into the race off a seven-week layoff.
"He's always acted like a nice horse from when we first got him," said Matz after his first win in the Champagne. "He's trained well this period he's been off. The timing is great now. The seven weeks didn't hurt him between races.
Matz added that traffic "is going to happen with 2-year-olds, and they find a way out of it, don't they? I think he's a real good horse. Anytime you can win going five-eighths with me, you know they're nice horses. I've had horses on and off for Mrs. Wyeth, and she said to me, 'I'm going to have a good one for you,' and I think she does."
Based at Fair Hill training center for Matz, the bay colt has worked four times since the Saratoga Special.
Power World dueled Right to Vote for the lead in the Champagne through early swift fractions of :22.74 and :45.84 before Right to Vote, ridden by Alex Solis, assumed the advantage while completing six furlongs in 1:10.37. With Takes the Gold and Invocation also in contention on the turn, Union Rags was crying out for room as the field made its way out into the stretch.
Castellano, with Union Rags advancing into fourth in upper stretch, tried to to make an inside move but was blocked approaching the eighth pole, then altered course to the outside of Right of Vote, getting past while in close quarters. Union Rags drew off nicely from there, however, and was never challenged while kept to the task by his rider.
"My plan 'A' was to be close to the pace," Castellano said. "He's a really nice horse, and you can put him wherever you want. Unfortunately, in the first jump (Right to Vote) squeezed me. He bumped really hard, and I lost the momentum right there. Now I had to change my plan to 'B' come from behind horses.
"But he's an amazing horse, nothing bothers him. He got dirt in the face, he was blocked all the way on the trip. I tried to wait for my best opportunity to make that move. When he saw daylight, he took off. He's a special horse."
Godolphin's Alpha, a six-length maiden winner in his debut at Saratoga Sept. 3, trailed early and rallied in the stretch for Alan Garcia to get up by a neck over Right to Vote.
"He was acting up a little bit in the gate and he broke a little slow out of there," Garcia said of the runner-up. "It cost me a lot the first part of the race, but he was running very hard at the end."
Takes the Gold was fourth, followed by Invocation, No Spin, Power World, and Laurie's Rocket.
Union Rags, out of the Gone West mare Tempo, boosted his career earnings to $498,800 with the winning purse of $180,000. He won his debut by 1 3/4 lengths at Delaware Park in July before scoring in front-running style by 7 1/4 lengths in the Saratoga Special.
"I can't even talk," Wyeth said. "We didn't know what kind of horse we really had. I think he's good. We always had hopes for him, but it's really an honor, because my mother bred all the mares, and (he's) by my father's stallion. It's what they all lived to produce. It really is an honor."
Under equal weights of 122 pounds, Union Rags paid $4.40, $2.80, and $2.20. Alpha, from the Kiaran McLaughlin barn, returned $3.20 and $2.70, and completed an $11.40 exacta. Right to Vote was $5.80 to show.
"I was happy with the way he ran in only his second start," McLaughlin said of Alpha. "He finished second to a very nice horse. We'll go on to the Breeders' Cup with him."