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Kentucky Derby Primer: The Road to the Triple Crown

The three-year track to the fastest, most exciting two minutes in sports can have conditions ranging anywhere from fast-and-good to slow-and-sloppy. Phyllis Wyeth, the owner of Chadds Ford Stables, has seen them all en route to the 2012 Triple Crown season — when the Kentucky Derby (May 5), Preakness Stakes (May 19) and Belmont Stakes (June 9) are run in a frenetic five-week stretch. After taking a circuitous detour through the mud, Wyeth has come out clean on the other side and has hit full stride with the nation’s top three-year-old thoroughbred racehorse, bay colt Union Rags.

Born and bred near Philadelphia at Chadds Ford Stables, Union Rags — sired by Dixie Union out of Tempo — was sold by Wyeth for $145,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Selected Yearlings Sale in 2010. But the sale didn’t sit well with the wife of famed painter Jamie Wyeth. She could not cope with a serious case of seller’s remorse. So six months later, Wyeth bought back her colt for $390,000 — or $245,000 more than she had sold him for.

Despite taking one step back financially, Wyeth and her team led by trainer Michael Matz are aiming to take 10 furlongs (1 1⁄4 miles) forward historically in the “Run for the Roses” at Churchill Downs. After racing in Louisville, the schedule shifts to Pimlico Race Course (1 3⁄16 miles) in Baltimore two weeks later and then to Belmont Park (1 1⁄2 miles) in New York two weeks after that.

Since Wyeth’s risky rebuy, Union Rags has earned well over $1 million and appears poised to contend in, and possibly win, one or more of the season’s big three races.

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This is not the first time Matz has trained the early favorite, having guided Barbaro to a win in the 2006 Kentucky Derby before a false start in the Preakness Stakes resulted in a broken leg and ultimately euthanization. Matz, however, has never been one to let tragedy slow him down. In 1989, he and future wife D.D. Alexander were passengers on United Flight 232, which crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 111 on board. Matz not only survived the sudden impact but also heroically saved four children — three siblings and an 11-month-old baby girl — from the subsequent wreckage.

Matz’s perseverance is matched by Wyeth. A former model, Wyeth was working in President John F. Kennedy’s administration when she suffered a permanently crippling car accident in 1962. She has since gone on to a decorated career of public service, philanthropy and, of course, horse breeding. After listening to her own instincts, Wyeth is coming down the stretch with Union Rags.

There have been only 11 Triple Crown winners in history — Affirmed (1978), Seattle Slew (1977), Secretariat (1973), Citation (1948), Assault (1946), Count Fleet (1943), Whirlaway (1941), War Admiral (1937), Omaha (1935), Gallant Fox (1930) and Sir Barton (1919). But that doesn’t stop every owner, trainer and jockey from chasing the carrot of Triple Crown immortality.