Nearly two years ago Phyllis Wyeth was faced with a gut wrenching decision. She could hold on to her prized homebred colt whose bloodlines traced back to her parents” historic Hickory Tree Farm, or sell him at the Saratoga Yearling Sale.
“My accountant suggested I sell him for tax purposes to show my breeding operation was a business, not a hobby,” lamented Wyeth at Point Lookout Farm, a glorious piece of property that straddles the Delaware-Pennsylvania line near Chadds Ford. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to do it.”
By early 2011 Wyeth was dealing with serious seller’s remorse.
“Lord, I think I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Wyeth recalled. “I didn’t care about the money. I need to buy him back. He is the best of my family’s breeding.”
Wyeth’s father’s star horse Gone West was the broodmare sire of Union Rags, while the female side of the colt goes back to her mother’s horses Glad Rags II and Terpsichorist.
Bloodstock agent, adviser and lifelong friend Russell Jones was dispatched to the sale of two-year olds in Florida. The auction took place on March 3, Union Rags” second birthday.
“He was in the sales catalogue so I called Phyllis and asked if she wanted to buy her horse back. She said yes, please,” recalled Jones who lives just outside Unionville, Pa. “I called her before the start of the sale and she gave me a limit of $390,000 and that’s exactly what he sold for. How crazy is that? It was like it was meant to be. I only had to bid one time– 390.”
Wyeth paid more than two and a half times what she got at Saratoga the year before. The price didn’t matter. The horse did. Big, handsome, and very talented, Union Rags is tutored by Chester County trainer Michael Matz who brought Barbaro to national prominence in 2006.
Wyeth’s intuition paid off big time in the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes on June 9. Under a clever ride from John Velazquez, Union Rags stormed through a slip of a hole and caught pacesetting Paynter in the closing strides to win by a neck.
Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth watched it all unfold from a perch high above the grand old racetrack on Long Island.
“I knew he would make it. I had a dream,” said Wyeth, the colt’s breeder and owner who is married to celebrated artist Jamie Wyeth. He is the son of Andrew Wyeth, the beloved American painter who died at age 91 in 2009.
“I only have Union Rags and half of another runner, a (small-time) claimer. I knew Michael (Matz) could do it with him. It was my dream and he made it come true today. And nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today, I can tell you that. That was unbelievable. He just said ‘Move over, I’m coming.'”
With a eighth of a mile to go in the mile and a half race it looked like Paynter was home free. Then his jockey Mike Smith made a mistake. With Atigun (20-1) angling at Paynter with a big run in deep stretch, Smith switched to a left-hand whip. Paynter shied from the sting and lunged outside just a bit. Velazquez pounced on the opening and drove Union Rags through on the rail to snatch the victory.
Smith was in a no-win spot. He had to pay attention to Atigun since he was the first threat. Meanwhile, Velazquez was glued to the rail, waiting for the hole to open.
“Mike could not see me,” said Velazquez, who donned Wyeth’s Chadds Ford Stable’s gold and ball brown silks for the first time. “When I saw him hit his horse left-handed, I thought, ‘This could be my chance.” Mike had to drift outside to go to Atigun.
“I saw the hole, and I waited for it to open up. I got lucky. The horse did it all.”
At 17 hands Union Rags was the biggest horse in the race.
“It was an awfully small hole for that size horse to fit through,” confirmed Matz who is based at the Fair Hill Training Center. “You’ve got to give the colt and Johnny credit. They got it done. When I saw the head-on, it wasn’t that big a hole.”
The day before the Belmont, I”ll Have Another– who would have been shooting to be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 following his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness– was scratched and then retired because of an injured tendon in his left front leg after a morning gallop. Still, a raucous crowd of 85,811 turned out, many of them in fedoras and madras jackets and puffing cigars as they fought their way to the betting windows.
“Everyone really got to see the real Union Rags,” said Matz of the horse who was favored to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby. “We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential. We gave him four races as a two-year-old and we gave him a rest and we had a good plan for this year. He got in trouble the second race and the third race.”
The victory brushed aside the stinging disappointments that Matz and Wyeth encountered when a dreadful start doomed the imposing bay colt in the Kentucky Derby where he wound up seventh and when Union Rags was boxed in the Florida Derby and finished third. The connections went with a new game plan: jockey Julien Leparoux was fired and Velazquez was hired.
“I rode him with a lot of confidence,” said Velazquez who will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs in early August.
“Union Rags had a bad race in the Derby and right away everybody forgot about him,” said Velazquez. “Everybody got off the bandwagon. In the Derby they can break bad or get a bad trip, and they can’t run their best races. He was one of them. All I know is, I’ve been watching this horse for a long time, and he’s a very, very good horse.”
Raised at Point Lookout Farm, her Belmont winner is Wyeth’s own thread to greatness from her family’s rich racing tapestry. She keeps eight broodmares at the farm where she and Jamie have lived for 47 years.
Wyeth is the daughter of James Mills and Alice DuPont Mills, who founded Hickory Tree Farm and Stable based in Middleburg, Virginia. They bred and owned such top-class horses as Devil’s Bag and Gone West. A political science major, Wyeth worked as secretary to President Kennedy’s special assistant at just 18 years old. Two years later Wyeth was the victim of a head-on car crash in 1962. She was suffered a broken neck and was paralyzed from the waist down. She determinedly used crutches and braces for years before being confined to a wheelchair since 2001. Today, Wyeth uses a motorized scooter to get around.
As Jamie Wyeth led the handsome colt into winner’s circle at Belmont Park, Phyllis piloted her scooter across the track’s apron, wearing a broad smile and her lovely trademark straw hat. Waving to the crowd she pulled up next to her brilliant bay colt. An official draped a blanket of white carnations over her lap. Phyllis tapped her classic winner on the nose as dozens of cameras clicked. She puffed on a cigar. The Wyeth gang erupted into applause, cheers and even some tears.
Throughout her life challenges Wyeth, 71, has never stopped believing in herself, nor her champion colt.
“Phyllis thought the horse was better than he showed in the last two races where he never had a clear path to run,” Jones related. “So the Belmont is not only a major victory, it is a vindication of her thoughts and opinion.”
As for the tumultuous 2012 Triple Crown series, it’s passed into history just as the Kentucky Derby prep season started, with Phyllis Wyeth’s powerful colt as the top three-year old colt racing.
As twilight set in back at his Belmont Park barn on June 9th, the horse that would be king– finally was.
Looking ahead — Union Rags has now earned $1,798,800. He will likely race next in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 28, then the Travers Stakes on Aug. 25 at Saratoga with the ultimate goal the $5 million Breeders” Cup Classic Nov. 5 at Santa Anita Park.
Terry Conway has written for the Hunt magazine since 2003. He is a longtime racing correspondent to Blood-Horse magazine and ESPN.com