HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Before Union Rags gets to the Kentucky Derby, another challenge awaits.
The consensus favorite entering the Triple Crown season could further solidify that position on Saturday, when he'll almost certainly be sent off as the top choice in the Florida Derby, a $1 million, Grade 1 test at Gulfstream Park that typically serves as one of the top prep races before the Kentucky Derby. A field of nine is entered, including morning-line second-choice El Padrino.
Union Rags has won four of his five lifetime starts, beaten only by a head by Hansen in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. His only race as a 3-year-old was also at Gulfstream, an easy victory in the Fountain of Youth.
"Right now, I'm pretty excited with the way he's going to come into the Florida Derby," said trainer Michael Matz, perhaps best known for training 2006 Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro - whose path to the Run for the Roses also went through a Florida Derby win at Gulfstream.
Matz said he asked jockey Julien Leparoux if there's any areas where Union Rags needs improvement. The answer shows how much confidence Union Rags' connections have right now.
"He said, `Not really,"' Matz said.
Matz thinks Union Rags is going to be sharper, and that's likely a scary proposition to those in other competing barns right now. Union Rags has won on fast and wet tracks, with three of his four wins being by at least four lengths. His loss at the Breeders' Cup last year came after he had a particularly wide trip, getting edged in a photo finish.
Hansen won't be at the Florida Derby, instead being targeted for the Blue Grass at Keeneland for his final Derby prep.
So Union Rags' top challenge on Saturday will likely come from El Padrino, who's 2-for-2 as a 3-year-old, with one of those wins at Gulfstream. Trainer Todd Pletcher said El Padrino is "becoming more and more professional," which was on full display in his win at the Risen Star Stakes last month. El Padrino trailed much of the way, then dug deep in the stretch to win by a nose.
El Padrino owner Kevin Scatuorchio said Union Rags is considered "the best 3-year-old in the country," and notes that praise is deserved.
"But we're confident in our horse," Scatuorchio said. "We aren't dodging anyone."
Another horse to watch will likely be Take Charge Indy - to be ridden by perennial Derby favorite Calvin Borel. Take Charge Indy, a son of A.P. Indy, is 0-for-4 since breaking his maiden last July, but lost by only two lengths to El Padrino in an allowance race at Gulfstream in January.
The field, from the rail out, is Fort Loudon, News Pending, Take Charge Indy, Neck N' Neck, Z Camelot, Union Rags, Bartolome, El Padrino and Reveron.