I make it no secret that Union Rags is the horse I’m rooting for on the Kentucky Derby trail this year. He seemingly has everything you would want in a Derby winner. As long as there are no setbacks, come Derby week, NBC will surely play up the story of Michael Matz, who tragically lost Barbaro just six years ago and now is back with the favorite. But they will also need to mention the unusual, remarkable story of Union Rags’ owner:
When in search of the origins of the name of a thoroughbred racehorse, one often looks first to some combination of the names of the horse’s sire and dam. In the case of Kentucky Derby favorite Union Rags, he obviously inherits the first half of his name from his father, the late Dixie Union. But when looking for the source of the “Rags,” it becomes necessary to delve a bit deeper into his pedigree—and early life, for that matter—to understand the choice.
Union Rags is owned by Phyllis Wyeth, the daughter of Alice du Pont Mills, a prominent thoroughbred owner and breeder who raced under the name Hickory Tree Stables. Among the notable runners du Pont Mills campaigned in her over fifty years of involvement in the sport were Devil’s Bag, Gone West, and Believe It. She also was the owner of a filly named Glad Rags II, who raced in Europe under the care of the great Vincent O’Brien. Glad Rags II was champion two-year-old filly in Ireland in 1965 and the following year captured England’s One Thousand Guineas, giving O’Brien his only win in that historic race.
Glad Rags II, in addition to her achievements on the racetrack, proved especially valuable as a broodmare back in the United States. She is the direct female ancestress of such talented runners as Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair and Mother Goose Stakes winner Dreams Gallore along with many other stakes winners. The best horse that Glad Rags produced for her owners to race was a filly by Nijinsky II named Terpsichorist. On the track, Terpsichorist excelled in turf marathons. Her accomplishments included winning the 1978 Long Island Handicap at 1 1/2 miles, the 1979 Sheepshead Bay Handicap at 1 1/4 miles, and setting a track record at the Meadowlands for the distance of 1 3/8 miles. Upon her retirement at the end of 1979, Terpsichorist had won 11 of her 28 races and earned over $420,000.
As a broodmare, Terpsichorist produced a number of decent horses, the most accomplished being Dancing Devlette, a daughter of Devil’s Bag, who, like her mother, placed in both the Long Island and Sheepshead Bay Handicaps. Upon her retirement, Dancing Devlette produced Grade-I placed Satans Quick Chick, who was third in last year’s Beldame Stakes (G1) and Pratella, also G1-placed and the winner of the Cardinal Handicap (G3).
In 1992, Terpsichorist gave birth to a Gone West filly named Tempo. She was thought to have quite a bit of ability by her connections, but issues with her soundness only permitted her to make it to the races three times. She won her debut as a 3-year-old in 1995, then did not start again until 1997 when she won a first level allowance before finishing second in her final start to stakes winner Quiet Dance, the dam of Horse of the Year Saint Liam. Standing as a broodmore for Hickory Tree Farm, Tempo produced a number of mediocre foals, but nothing of any great quality.
Alice du Pont Mills passed away in 2002 and left the remainder of her breeding operation to her daughter, Phyllis Wyeth, who has been bound to a wheelchair since a car accident early in her life. Tempo was one of the broodmares that Wyeth retained and she continued to run a small breeding operation with her husband, painter James Wyeth. When Tempo was seventeen in 2009, she produced what would turn out to be her last foal, a colt by Dixie Union. Like all the others, Wyeth put him up for auction the following year and he was sold to IEAH Stables for $145,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select sale.
But that’s not the end of this story. Wyeth was not pleased with her decision. She was having serious second thoughts, even dreams that she should not have sold this one. With Tempo’s retirement from broodmare duties, this Dixie Union colt would probably be representing the end of a bloodline that had been in her family dating back to the 1960s.
Therefore, when Wyeth learned that the colt was going to be put up for auction again as a two-year-old in training at Fasig-Tipton’s Palm Meadows sale, she sent her friend, bloodstock agent Russell Jones, to inspect the colt and assess his value. Jones reported on what a strapping, young colt Tempo’s son had matured into and warned her of the potential price, but Wyeth had become determined to have him back. It ended up costing her $390,000, nearly three times his original selling price, to regain ownership of the colt. She named him Union Rags in honor of the foundation mare that had started the bloodline for her family so many years earlier.
Union Rags was sent to trainer Michael Matz and he made his debut at Delaware Park in July as the only horse in Wyeth’s Chadds Ford Stable. Through his accomplishments on the racetrack, not only has he paid for any losses Wyeth incurred, but he has developed into the undisputed early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. The success of Union Rags has even led Wyeth to get back into the game in a small way. She recently claimed back the six-year-old Miss Pauline, another daughter of Tempo, for $7,500 at Parx Racing, in order to make her a broodmare. She now has a small band of six mares.
Union Rags truly has everything the so-called “Racing Gods” require from a Derby winner: the name, the pedigree, the connections, and the story.