Horse racing is about big dreams. Phyllis Wyeth, breeder and owner of Florida Derby (G1) favorite Union Rags, knows all about them.
Wyeth shared with Gulfstream Publicity this week a story about a filly she had high hopes for years ago and how that filly’s lack of success at the races led to trainer Michael Matz getting Union Rags in his barn.
Wyeth turned the newly acquired filly over to trainer Matz with high expectations.
“I bought this one horse that I thought would be really good to add to my broodmare band. She was one of George Strawbridge’s horses that was in a sale,” Wyeth recalled during a phone conversation from her farm in Chadds Ford, PA.
“She ran last twice on him and I told Michael, ‘Let’s get rid of this horse.’ I felt so badly for him. I told him, ‘I don’t want to embarrass you. I promise I’ll get you a good horse.’ The next horse I gave him was Union Rags.”
Union Rags and Matz now stand poised to progress on the Triple Crown trail with Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park fast approaching.
Union Rags is everything Wyeth could have dreamed about when she bred her broodmare Tempo to Dixie Union. Wyeth, who usually keeps only the fillies among her homebred horses, sold Union Rags at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale for $145,000, only to be quickly overcome with regret.
“He was so gorgeous and his temperament was so wonderful,” the 71-year-old owner of Point Lookout Farm recalled. “He had such a great personality.”
And then it was a dream she had that convinced her to buy the colt back the following year at the Fasig-Tipton Florida sale of 2-year-olds.
“I said ‘I don’t care, he’s coming back,’” Wyeth said. “I really did have that dream. I said, ‘How could I have sold him? That was a big mistake.”
Wyeth was able to bring Union Rags home, but it cost her $390,000 to reunite with her homebred colt. She was so convinced that big things were in store for him that she bought his half-sister Miss Pauline before Union Rags made his debut at Delaware Park last July.
“I had a feeling about Union Rags, and we needed a filly out of those bloodlines, so I claimed Union Rags’ half sister for $7,500,” said Wyeth, who claimed Miss Pauline out of a winning effort at Parx last April.
Wyeth has been around good horses her whole life, being the daughter of the late James P. Mills and Alice Francis du Pont Mills, who founded Hickory Tree Farm and campaigned the likes of Gone West, Devil’s Bag and Believe It, among others.
“It’s like a dream,” said Wyeth, who was an accomplished point-to-point steeplechase rider before being involved in a car accident in 1962 that would ultimately restrict her to a wheelchair in 1971. “I know my mother and father are looking down.”
There was never a question who would train Union Rags. Wyeth had a promise to keep.
“I really like Michael. He always says, ‘The horse will tell you.’ He’s a man who listens to the horse,” she said. “He treats each horse as an individual.”
Wyeth has attended the Kentucky Derby just once in her lifetime to watch her father’s Believe It finish third in 1978, the year Florida-bred Affirmed swept the Triple Crown.
“He came around the worst year of all. He had Affirmed and Alydar, and he was third (in the Derby and Preakness),” Wyeth said. “It was very exciting and we were pleased that he did so well.”
With any luck, Union Rags will get Wyeth back to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. If her dreams are any indication, Wyeth may very well have a visit or two or three awaiting her in May and June.
Gulfstream Park Publicity contributed to this report.
Union Rags, Phyllis Wyeth and trainer Michael Matz/Coglianese photo courtesy of Gulfstream Park