Phyllis Wyeth, wife of renowned American painter Jamie Wyeth, breeds only a handful of mares each year, but has hit the jackpot with Union Rags, a fourth generation decendant of her family's thoroughbred breeding program. The coming three year old colt is one of the top contenders for the May, 2012 Kentucky Derby.
The storybook season ended a few yards too soon.
Breaking from post 10 in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race, Chadds Ford Stable’s Union Rags ran very wide around both turns losing valuable ground before closing quickly down the middle of the track in the final furlong. Phyllis Wyeth’s onrushing Union Rags was reeling in Hansen as the two drove toward the wire, but the front-runner hung on desperately to eke out a win by a short head on Nov. 5.
Hansen broke from post five and sped to the lead with a dream trip on the rail. In stark contrast Union Rags was shuffled back to sixth early and hung four wide on the first turn and five wide on the far turn. Then in mid-stretch Union Rags veered sharply to the outside costing him most of his momentum. He surged powerfully again, but simply ran out of time. As the pair galloped out around the first turn Union Rags lengthened his lead. Both horses earned a modest speed figure of 94.
Runner-up Union Rags was probably the better horse, but it’s still the first head to the wire that wins. The Trakus data system employed by Churchill Downs measured Union Rags as having raced a whopping 78 feet more than the winner.
Trainer Michael Matz put it on a tough draw, post-10.
"They were wide on the first turn; they were wide on the second turn," Matz said of Union Rags' trip. "He (jockey Javier Castellano) said the other horse had it his own way, and Union Rags galloped out good and strong. Javier said, 'one more jump and we would have had him.'”
“I tried to cover up, but I never had the opportunity," added Castellano. “Unfortunately, as the race unfolded I was wide on two turns. I'm disappointed in the result, but I'm not disappointed in my horse.”
Wyeth stuck around Kentucky to attend the Keeneland November Sales.
“He ran a wonderful race. He tried hard all the way,” Wyeth said in a phone interview from Lexington a few days after the race. “He is a very competitive horse, and he’s going to get better and better. He won’t make those mistakes. We’re all still getting to know him and how he runs. I’m very pleased.”
Union Rags won three of four starts this year as a 2-year old. The debate for the male 2-year-old Eclipse Award may be as close as the margin of victory between Hansen and Union. Who votes for whom? Wyeth’s colt earned $360,000 in the Juvenile that pushed his earnings to $858,800, way more than enough to qualify for the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
Point Lookout Farm
Churchill Downs is a long way from the rolling pastures at Point Lookout Farm that straddles the Pennsylvania-Delaware border near Chadds Ford, Pa. Phyllis Mills Wyeth’s great-grandfather purchased the farm in 1903. The wife of celebrated artist Jamie Wyeth, Phyllis has lived here for 47 years, dreaming that dream-- to land the “big horse” and carry on the grand legacy of her parents, Richard P. Mills and Alice du Pont Mills.
In the mid-1960s her parents campaigned Glad Rags, a winner of an English classic race, and later raced speedsters Devil’s Bag and Gone West in the 1980s under the banner of the legendary Hickory Tree Stables. With Union Rags, a fourth generation descendant of her family’s thoroughbred operation, Wyeth is preserving her family’s thoroughbred racing legacy.
A handsome colt, Union Rags sports a long white blaze and three white stockings. He is a big horse (16.3 hands). Wyeth’s friend and bloodstock advisor Russell Jones says the horse has the whole package.
“He is an attractive horse who is well-balanced with good legs and limbs,” noted Jones who has been scrutinizing and buying racehorses for more than four decades. “He looks like a sound horse, and he has an exceptionally good mind and can handle himself without using a lot of energy. He’s got that big, long stride and a quick burst of acceleration that wins races.”
Union Rags has been stabled in Michael Matz’s barn at the Fair Hill Training Center since early summer.
“When he showed up he looked like a three-year old,” Matz related. “Within a couple of days he was going to the training track on his own, like he had been doing it all his life.
“He is a very sensible horse with a terrific disposition. He likes his job. He listens and just does everything so easily and everything right. He is a pleasure to be around.”
After having a horse like 2006 Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro, Matz says his standard is pretty high.
“The thing with Barbaro was he had such acceleration; when you asked him to accelerate he was three lengths on you,’’ said Matz prior to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. “Peter (exercise rider Brette) used to say Barbaro had so many gears. I think this horse has the ability to do that also.”
“Just get him”
Racing in the gold and ball brown colors of Chadds Ford Stable, Union Rags rolled to a 1-3/4 length score in a five-furlong dash at Delaware Park in July. In the Saratoga Special in August the colt went whoosh against five rivals, splashing his way to an impressive 7-1/2 length victory in August. He earned the $90,000 winner’s share, plus a $200,000 bonus for Wyeth because Union Rags was the first 2-year old purchased at last summer’s yearling sale to win a graded stakes at Saratoga.
A month later the colt was bottled up and experiencing traffic problems at the top of the stretch, but swung outside where he gunned down the pacesetter and romped by 5 1/4 lengths in winning the prestigious $300,000 Champagne Stakes.
“He’s an amazing horse, nothing bothers him,” said Castellano. “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.”
After the running of the 106th running of the Saratoga Special in the winner’s circle Wyeth was totally overcome with emotion.
Why? On the advice of her accountant Wyeth had sent the handsome bay colt to the Saratoga Yearling Sale in August 2010 where IEAH Stables purchased the colt for $145,600.
“My accountant told me to sell the colt,” lamented Wyeth on a picture-perfect October morning at Point Lookout. “It was for tax purposes to show I was running a business, not just a hobby. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to do it.”
Within a few months Wyeth had seller’s remorse. She asked Jones to find the colt. The former owner of Walnut Green Bloodstock Agency outside West Grove, Pa., Jones reported back that the colt had grown into an impressive two-year old.
Providently, the colt showed up at the two-year old in training sale at Palm Meadows, Florida. Wyeth dispatched Jones to the sale with these instructions, “Just get him.” Jones secured him back for $390,000.
Dam’s Final Foal
After death of her mother, Alice du Pont Mills, Wyeth retained the broodmare Tempo, who on March 3, 2009 gave birth to Union Rags. A daughter of the influential stallion Gone West that Alice and James Mills raced, Tempo’s first five foals all became winners. The best was Union Rags' full brother Geefour who was stakes placed and earned nearly $160,000 before being retired with a breathing problem.
But during the birth of Tempo’s seventh foal in 2007 the mare began hemorrhaging and they almost lost her. She was not bred the following year. Union Rags turned out to be Tempo’s eighth and final foal when she was retired from broodmare duty.
“I bought (Union Rags) back for three times the amount I sold him for, not your conventional business strategy,” said Wyeth with a chuckle. “But it didn’t matter. I realized I couldn’t get another foal from this mare. I kept having this premonition about (Union Rags). I said, ‘Phyllis, this is the best of my mother’s breeding program. I don’t care about the money. I’ve got to have this horse back.’”
Wyeth’s precocious 2-year old comes by his name from his sire, Dixie Union, a multiple graded stakes winning son of Dixieland Band, and from his third dam, Glad Rags II, the Mills family’s English One Thousand Guineas champion.
"Having my picture taken in the winner's circle at Saratoga, I was crying my head off," related Wyeth, "I was thanking my mother and father and carrying on their legacy. I'm really happy about that."
It is a narrative that honors a storied family’s homebred tradition.
“If Phyllis’ parents were alive, they would be thrilled,” remarked Jones. “It’s the culmination of a family project since Union Rags came from one of the families they nurtured and developed at Hickory Tree. It’s a wonderful interlocking story.”
Life on the Farm
Named for the rocky ridge of land that crosses a major Indian trail, Point Lookout Farm commands a sweeping view of the tumbling river below. Legend has it George Washington stood here on a bluff and plotted tactics to defend against the British advance in the Battle of Brandywine in 1777.
Previously owned by Phyllis’ mother Alice, Point Lookout has been a primary location for many of Jamie Wyeth’s paintings that encompass so much of the artist’s personality, humor, wit and sense of wonder.
“Jamie has such an affinity for animals,” Phyllis noted. “As a teenager he spent his mornings being tutored by his aunt Carolyn, and later mentored by his father. He spent afternoons drawing in the openness of this beautiful countryside with a menagerie of animals everywhere.”
Jamie definitely has a superstar artist’s pedigree. He is the grandson of the greatest American illustrator N. C. Wyeth and the son of Andrew Wyeth—long considered America’s most famous living painter up to the time of his death in 2010. Known for austere paintings of rural life, many with hidden messages, some of Andrew’s works have sold for millions.
Phyllis has been the subject of many of Jamie’s paintings including, “And Then Into the Deep Gorge,” “Wicker,” “Whale” and “Connemara Four” of Phyllis as the carriage driver with her team of ponies.
Point Lookout is a farm of 240 acres where the cozy farmhouse—the original part dates to 1680—frames a vibrant garden. The house’s terrace overlooks rolling pastures where a half a dozen broodmares graze.
Piloting her all-terrain scooter, Phyllis leads a tour of her gorgeous farm pointing to hillside where a cluster of young horses frolic. Two years ago Union Rags was playing there. The farmhouse resides in Pennsylvania, while the barn sits in Delaware. For decades she has operated a very small breeding operation. Last year she splurged adding a trio of broodmares. Wyeth expects six foals next year, including one by Dynaformer.
“We breed in Pennsylvania, yet our horses are Delaware Certified, a lot folks scratch their head about that one,” Wyeth said with a chuckle.
Juan Martinez has been at the farm for eight years and is the chief horseman. He and Union Rags developed a special bond when the horse was a weanling. Martinez says he gravitated to the colt because of his athleticism and his very easy-going nature.
“I would play with him all the time, even slept with him in the stall,” Martinez related. “I would hop on him on my belly (draped over the weanling’s back) and ride him around the barn. He was very calm and quiet all the time. I gave him love and trust and we became great friends.
“He did everything so easy. We wanted to build up his neck so I hitched him up to a set of long side reins and would walk behind him for awhile. He was very comfortable with it and having fun.”
Union Rags is Wyeth’s only horse in training.
“Juan even rode him in from the field before he was broken,” Wyeth remembered. “He was easy to handle. He was a wonderful horse to be around. Any kid could come right up to him.”
A Determined Woman
Wyeth grew up at Burnt Mill Farm, a mile outside Middleburg, where as teenagers Phyllis and sister Mimi competed in local point-to-point races. During her college years, Wyeth majored in political science and worked for then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy and later in the White House as a secretary to the president’s special assistant.
Her life changed dramatically in 1962 at age 20 during a drive through the horse country of Middleburg. A car trying to pass a truck hit her head-on. After passing through a near-death experience, she awoke to find herself with a broken neck, paralyzed from the waist down. She spent the next nine months in a hospital, had two major operations and a lot of minor ones. Twenty years ago her condition worsened and she’s undergone half-a-dozen surgeries on her hand and foot and had her back stabilized by steel rods. She never regained the use of her legs but for many years “walked” through sheer determination with the aid of braces and crutches. Today, she gets around using a motorized scooter.
Wyeth has never let her handicap slow her down. Friends quip, “she is all systems go, all the time.”
“Phyllis is the most remarkable woman I ever met,” observed Thoroughbred owner Rick Porter, a good friend of the Wyeth family. “She tries to get the most out of every minute in her life. Never complains, keeps moving forward.”
Today at her Point Lookout Farm she is a dynamo, managing the farm while Jamie works on his latest paintings. She travels quite frequently and strives to make a better life for other physically challenged people as well as championing preservation of scenic open spaces in the famed Brandywine Valley.
“Back in the 1970s, Jamie was painting the great Russian dancer Nureyev and we got to be good friends,” Wyeth recalled. “Nureyev would tell me, ‘stay focused and keep going.’ I always was fearless and still am today. I have been to Russia nine times and you should see Jamie and me out on a boat. After the accident I just redirected myself. Got involved helping people, the environment and historic preservation. There is so much you can do.”
Despite her physical disability, Wyeth excelled at the sport of carriage driving with her Connemara ponies for a dozen years. She took second place at the Windsor Horse Show in England in 1990 and won the Laurels Preliminary Ponies competition with her team in 1986.
“It was raining so hard that day my hands were slipping off the reins,” Wyeth recalled. “They had wicked hazards on the course, just awful. It was a wild adventure.”
Another Wild Ride
Meanwhile, Union Rags is taking Wyeth on another wild ride as she points her colt toward the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
“I was so excited just to be at the Breeders’ Cup races,” Wyeth related. “It’s another world and I never knew it. We’ve had an unbelievable number of offers to sell him and nearly every Kentucky stud farm has talked to us. But I don’t want anyone controlling my horse, telling me what to do. Union Rags is a dream come true for me.”
The colt came out of the race in good condition and was sent to Palm Meadows Training Center in South Florida where he will get four to six weeks off. Matz and his stable crew moved to Palm Meadows from Fair Hill in mid-November. Union Rags’ first race in his 3-year old campaign could be the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 26.
Juvenile winner Hansen will also be in South Florida. Hansen rockets out of the gate and never looks back. It is not exactly an ideal style for a colt who hopes to triumph in a full field of 20 in the cavalry charge known as the Kentucky Derby.
“The winner got a fantastic ride from (Ramon) Dominquez and a dream trip, but he will never beat Union Rags again,” insisted Russell Jones. “Union Rags is the best 2-year old. I think he’ll be the future winter book favorite (in Las Vegas) to win the 138th Derby.”
Peter Brette, Matz’s assistant trainer and exercise rider of Union Rags, says the Juvenile defeat might take some of pressure off in the lead up to the Derby.
“If he was unbeaten they would have been comparing him to Barbaro, and it would have been a bit of a media circus,” he said “We might slip under the radar for awhile.”
Over the winter Union Rags will grow physically and mature mentally. He will also need to develop a bit more speed. Still, the way Union Rags rolled down the deep stretch in the Juvenile he looked like something special. Flashing under the wire first at Churchill Downs would be justice served the first Saturday in May.