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By Mike Curry, America’s Best Racing

By the time Teeth of the Dog made his career debut at Gulfstream Park in December 2011, stablemate Union Rags already was a multiple graded stakes winner and runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) for trainer Michael Matz.

Union Rags was a precocious 2-year-old, winning the Saratoga Special Stakes (G2) and Champagne Stakes (G1), in his second and third starts, respectively, while Teeth of the Dog was not as far along developmentally at that point in his juvenile season.

Matz saw Teeth of the Dog’s potential, however, and gave the Bluegrass Cat colt the time he needed to mature. Now, Matz is reaping the reward with not one but two elite 3-year-olds.

Three weeks after Union Rags won the Belmont Stakes (G1), Teeth of the Dog fought off Fast Falcon under Joel Rosario for a breakthrough win in the Dwyer Stakes (G2) on June 30. That followed a fifth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes (G1) and a 3 ¾-length romp in the Easy Goer Stakes on the Belmont undercard.

TEETH OF THE DOG WINNING DWYER

TeethoftheDog-Dwyer

“He just needed time to mature,” Matz said of the bay colt, who is owned by J.W. Singer. “He needed to settle down and get straightened out. We started him out down in Florida. We probably shouldn’t have gone in the Preakness, but that’s easy to say afterwards, but he’s come around the last month or so and he’s going in the right direction.”

After finishing third then second in his first two starts, Teeth of the Dog flashed his determination with a game, front-running win by a head in a February maiden race at Gulfstream. The fight he showed in that victory reappeared in the Dwyer, when he battled back after being challenged in the stretch by Fast Falcon and prevailed by a determined neck.

“When he broke his maiden going a mile and an eighth at Gulfstream, he was on the lead the whole way and the horses came at him, and he just was game to win his race there,” Matz said. “So we knew he was a fighter.

“He needed a little bit more racing experience, and he’s gotten that.”

Matz found a strong pairing with Rosario and Teeth of the Dog, who teamed for his two recent stakes victories. Teeth of the Dog gives Matz a formidable one-two punch heading into the second half of the season, which features plenty of opportunities in marquee stakes for 3-year-olds.

“We ran him in three races in six weeks. That was a tough schedule, but I thought the Dwyer was a good spot for him and he didn’t disappoint us,” Matz said. “I think probably his next start will be a little more time in between, hopefully the West Virginia Derby (G2) [on August 4].”

Matz said Union Rags came out of the Belmont Stakes win “terrific." He breezed five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.60 on Friday at Matz’s Fair Hill Training Center home base in preparation for a planned start in the Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) on July 29 at Monmouth Park, where he probably would face Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness Stakes runner-up Bodemeister. Friday’s drill was the fastest of six timed workouts at the distance.

Up until the Belmont Stakes, Union Rags’ experience on the 2012 Triple Crown trail this spring was an exercise in frustration for Matz and owner-breeder Phyllis Wyeth. After winning his 2012 debut impressively in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), the Dixie Union colt finished third in the Florida Derby (G1) after finding his best stride too late to threaten winner Take Charge Indy. Then, Union Rags was squeezed at the start of the Kentucky Derby and forced all the way back to 18th in the 20-horse field. Union Rags finished willingly in the first jewel of the Triple Crown, but never factored in the outcome after the disastrous start.

“You have one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, and all winter the way he was going, everything was right on track. When it’s a bad situation where he gets hit by some other horses and gets eliminated at the start, it just goes wrong,” Matz said of the Kentucky Derby.

“A lot of the time, when you do have a horse that you’re trying to get to the Kentucky Derby in one piece, things sometimes go awry and one thing happens here, one thing happens there, you get a setback. But we didn’t have any setbacks all year. It was just an unfortunate situation, and I felt sorry for [Wyeth] and the horse because obviously they have one chance [at the Kentucky Derby].”

Count Matz in the group that did not understand the need to change the qualifying system for the Kentucky Derby from graded stakes earnings to a points-based system. Matz said he thinks the Derby field size (20 horses) is the far bigger problem.

“I don’t think [the new system is] going to get more people to follow who is in the Kentucky Derby or not, it was quite easy to see who won graded stakes money and who didn’t. I don’t think that’s the part that’s broke,” he said. “I think maybe the part that’s broke is too many horses.”

In the Belmont Stakes, Union Rags seized the opportunity to show racing fans his best, powering through on the rail to overhaul Paynter for a neck victory in the final 2012 U.S. classic. Matz, who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby (G1) with Barbaro and the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) with Round Pond, declined to call Union Rags’ Belmont win the most gratifying of his career but said it ranked right up at the top.

“It was certainly very gratifying, that’s for sure,” he said. “It was very gratifying that the horse got a chance to show what he’s made out of.”

MATZ KEEPING A CAREFUL EYE ON UNION RAGS OVER THE WINTER IN FLORIDA 

Rags-MatzPalmMeadows

Photos courtesy of Eclipse SportsWire

MATZ DISCUSSES UNION RAGS PRIOR TO HIS BELMONT WIN

A LOOK AT THE BENEFITS OF TRAINING AT FAIR HILL

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