Sixteen years ago Michael Matz’s dogged determination paid off when he earned a silver medal as a member of the U.S. Olympic equestrian team that competed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. It capped a run of 20 years as a world-class horseman as he won multiple gold, silver and bronze medals at the World Championships and Pan Am Games. He was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2006.
In a roller-coaster 2012 Matz has had little time to reflect upon his Olympic glory. His prized three-year old colt Union Rags was favored heading into the 2012 Kentucky Derby, but a dreadful start doomed the imposing bay and he finished fifth. Five weeks later Union Rags earned his classic victory when he shot through a narrow hole on the rail to nip Paynter and take the $1 million Belmont Stakes on June 9.
The plan was to start the colt in $1 million Haskell Invitational on July 29. It was derailed when Union Rags was diagnosed with a small lesion in his left front leg involving a high suspensory ligament injury which probably resulted from a bad step during his workout at the Fair Hill Training Center. Fair Hill veterinarian Kathy Anderson said it was not a tendon injury and the prognosis for a complete recovery was excellent and the horse was expected to race in 2013.
Breeder and owner Phyllis Wyeth said the son of Dixie Union was done for 2012. Then a week later she retired the colt. Matz, who was clearly looking forward to Union Rags' return to the races, declined to comment on the retirement. He will enter stud next year at William S. Farish's Lane's End Farm near Versailles, Ky., the farm announced on Aug. 16. Union Rags retires with a record of eight starts, five wins, one second, and one third with earnings of $1,798,800.
Fortunately, the Chester County trainer had an alternate plan in three-year old colt Teeth of the Dog who will carry the barn’s flag the second half of the season.
“I’m very lucky to have a horse like this,” said Matz, a native of Skipjack Township. “He’s been slower to mature than Union Rags was. I got him [last year], and we gave him some time to come around. He was pretty competitive in his last two races. I’ll tell you one thing, he is a trier.”
Teeth of the Dog is owned by Jose Singer, a former Dominican Republic minister of foreign affairs, who named the colt after a Pete Dye designed golf course. With seven holes skirting the Caribbean ocean, the Teeth of the Dog course is consistently ranked by Golf Magazine as No.1 in the Caribbean and one of the top 50 in the world.
Teeth of the Dog’s heart and determination was on display in the Grade-2 Dwyer Stakes on June 30, when the 3-year-old bay colt held off the late bid of Fast Falcon to prevail by a neck.
“He didn't let that other horse get by him,” said Matz. “He fought those other two horses off and the other horse came at him. He tries. He will give you whatever he has. Sometimes that makes up for a lot of things.”
The son of Bluegrass Cat, out of the mare Deputy Reality, scored in the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont Park on June 9. A late bloomer, Teeth of the Dog didn’t break his maiden until Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park.
Matz elected to run his colt in the $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 28 when Wood Memorial winner Gemologist committed to run in the Haskell. Teamed with jockey Joel Rosario for the third consecutive time, he was one of eight 3-year-olds entered in the Jim Dandy, the local prep for the $1 million Travers Stakes Aug. 25.
After heavy rains the day before the track came up sloppy as eight 3-year olds broke from the gate. Alpha led the field around the first turn and into the backstretch with Teeth of the Dog pressing the pace. But as Alpha rounded the far turn into the stretch Teeth of the Dog was fighting the track and finished fourth.
Matz blamed the off-track for his lackluster performance. With Paynter now out of the Travers Stakes there is a chance Teeth of the Dog could run in the $1 million Travers at Saratoga, though Matz has been leaning toward the $350,000 Smarty Jones (1 mile and 70 yards) on Sept. 3 at Parx Racing, followed by the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 22 run at a mile and an eighth, also at Parx.
Bob Baffert trainee Paynter came down with an infection after a dominating performance in the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 29, and has lost training time. Baffert said the Pennsylvania Derby or the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Sept. 29 would be his next start. The Sept. 22 racing card at Parx will also spotlight a second $1 million race, the Cotillion Stakes. It’s a rarity, if not a first, in American racing on a non-Breeders’ Cup program.
“We’ve asked a lot of him this year, and he’s handled himself pretty well,” Matz said. “One of the great things about this horse is that he’s got a big heart and will give us his all. We'll wait and run him in the Pennsylvania races and see where we go from there.”
As for Union Rags, Wyeth did not respond to an interview request and has not talked with the media since the Kentucky Derby, deferring all comments to longtime advisor and friend Russell Jones who lives outside Unionville.
"Phyllis discussed it with Jamie (her husband) and it was all about the risk factor,” Jones told Blood-Horse.com. “This was a time to make the tough decision. The horse is very much in the limelight as far as breeders go at this moment, and they felt like it would be a challenge and a risk to be back in this position next year."
Pennsylvania-breds dominated at Penn National on July 30, winning two of the three stakes races carded for open company. Toby’s Corner, the 2011 New York Wood Memorial (Grade-1) winner scored his first victory of the season by four lengths in the $175,000 Mountainview Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on the main track. Toby's Corner faced four opponents in the main track event. Owned by Dianne and Julian Cotter and trained by Graham Motion, Toby’s Corner eclipsed a 25-year old track record in the Mountainview. The four-year old son of Bellamy Road was clocked in at 1:49.15.
Toby’s Corner’s stablemate Smart Bid unleashed a furious late charge to defeat See Tobe by a head in the $100,000 Hanover Stakes at one and one half miles on the turf. Owned and bred by George Strawbridge Jr.’ s Augustin Stable, Smart Bid won the $125,000 Fair Grounds Handicap earlier this year. Now six, Smart Bid sports lifetime winnings of $933,013.
“This is a very talented horse,” Strawbridge said, “and I think he will be heard from later on this year.”
A strong proponent of medicine-free racing, Strawbridge is a key member of a new grassroots organization that wants involvement by the federal government in horse racing. The Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA), was founded in May by Strawbridge, Chester County’s Gretchen and Roy Jackson, and Arthur and Staci Hancock.
WHOA (www.waterhayoatsalliance.com) supports federal regulation that would ban the use of performance-enhancing drugs in racehorses, including furosemide (also known as Salix and Lasix). It is commonly administered to treat pulmonary hemorrhaging in racehorses and the drug is banned across much of the world because it is considered a performance enhancer. Their website allows individuals to join the Alliance.
Beginning this year, the American Graded Stakes Committee will evaluate and rate the quality of listed stakes races. The new rating system would also extend to listed stakes for 2-year-olds the ban on race-day Salix use. It will be applied to graded stakes for 2-year-olds when the program is implemented, according to a report on Bloodhorse.com in mid-August.
"The listed races would be treated the same as graded stakes and have to follow the same policies," said Andy Schweigardt, secretary of the AGSC and director of industry relations and development for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
The AGSC in the past has tied adoption of various policies to retaining graded status for stakes. Their decision to implement the ban followed a decision by the Breeders' Cup officials to eliminate race-day medication for all 2-year-old races during the 2012 World Championships at Santa Anita Park.
North America does not have a quality control system over listed races, unlike Europe and the Austral-Asian countries. To be a listed stakes in the U.S., a race only needs to be an open stakes with a purse of at least $75,000. The AGCS will hold its annual grading session Nov. 28-29.