I remember the first time I saw him on the Kentucky Derby website. He was so eye-catching -- bay with that huge, white blaze and three socks. I honestly didn’t know a lot about horse racing at the time. All I knew was what I had seen in movies like “Seabiscuit” and “Racing Stripes”. But, I knew the moment that I saw Union Rags that he was going to be special.
It was the first time I had ever been really intrigued with a racehorse. I was just twelve years old at the time and though I had watched Kentucky Derbies before, I had never known any of the horses beforehand. This was my first time actually looking into the race.
Days upon days were spent researching everything about Union Rags. I watched his race replays religiously; his performance in the Gr.1 Champagne put me in awe, his narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile stung. Each time I watched a replay it was as if I was watching it live. I frequently googled members of his pedigree, searching for anything that proved to me that this colt was indeed made to be a champion. Needless to say, I was absolutely smitten. I made a photo of him my Facebook profile picture, shared image after image of him onto my timeline, and told everyone I could that he was going to win the Kentucky Derby. I was almost as obsessed with Union Rags as I was with One Direction haha!
On Kentucky Derby day 2012, I rushed home from the park and sat in my dad’s bedroom in front of his TV. He and my sisters gathered around to watch. I swore up and down that Union Rags could do it, that Union Rags would win. I knew nothing about handicapping at the time, I just knew that I believed in this horse.
As the world knows now, the Kentucky Derby didn’t exactly pan out for Union Rags. They left the gates and my eyes focused in on those yellow silks and that white face. I was anxious watching him run so far back in the pack, nearly dead last.
The field began going around the far turn and I got even more worrisome watching him roll past horses on the inside. They got to the top of the stretch and Union Rags was pretty much lost in the dust. The camera focused in on Bodemeister and I’ll Have Another; Union Rags finished 7th.
I was heartbroken, but I knew that it wasn’t over yet. As soon as it was announced that Union Rags was going to the Belmont Stakes, I again started telling people he was going to win. Even before I’ll Have Another scratched from the Belmont, I was willing to root against that potential Triple Crown. I knew in my heart that Union Rags could do it.
Belmont Stakes day made me more anxious than Kentucky Derby day. I spent the entire day in my room watching the pre-race coverage. When they loaded into the gates, I swear that my heart felt like it could explode. I was so nervous and so excited all at once. “He’ll get a better position this time,” I thought. “He’s better suited for this distance, look at the way he is built.”
The gates flew open and much to my relief, Union Rags got himself a much better position on the rail. He was mid-pack this time, not dead last. When the horses got to the top of the stretch, I began to cheer him on. He was right there on the rail, his sights set on pace-setter Paynter. He was struggling to get by, though. “Oh no,” I whispered. “Maybe he’s stuck?” A knot began to form in my stomach. Maybe I was wrong, maybe he couldn’t get this distance. He tried and tried and tried. Every split second felt like hours as I watched him on the rail, running hard but making no progress. Until, finally, his head cocked towards the rail ever so slightly and he began to make a move on Paynter. The wire was looming near, my heart was beating fast, and my hands were sweaty. The colt inched closer and closer until his head was in front...his head bobbing with every stride...and he crossed the wire with his ears pinned and his neck stretched! The colt I had believed so much in had won!
I was so happy that I was shaking. I couldn’t believe it! It was the first time I had followed a horse. Though it hadn’t been for his entire career, I had watched him win the most important race of his life.
When it was announced that he would be retiring after the Belmont Stakes, I was a little saddened. I wouldn’t get that feeling of exhilaration from him ever again. But, as the months went by and the pictures of him running through the pastures at Lane’s End began to make their way through Facebook, I was happy. Soon enough, his babies began to hit the ground and then the racetrack.
I rooted for them all, hoping to find one that touched me in the way that their sire did. I dreamed of one day getting to Lane’s End Farm to see him. And this year, my dream finally came true!
Touring Lane’s End Farm was incredible to me. I saw the graves of Dixieland Band and Dixie Union and reflected on my time spent researching them years ago. When the tour guide said that they’d be bringing Union Rags out for the group to see, I was absolutely elated. After all these years, I would finally be seeing Union Rags.
Union Rags is even more beautiful in person than he is in photos and videos ( hard to believe, right?). He looked so perfect, so royal, and so regal. Lane’s End Farm had him groomed perfectly. His white markings were glistening in the sun, dapples shining through his coat. I was in awe.
Union Rags is so important to me because he is the horse who really solidified my love for horse racing. Watching him run -- even in just those two races -- brought me so much joy and excitement. I saw him in person seven years after he won the Belmont Stakes and I am just as in love with now as I was then. My appreciation for him extends far beyond being a fan. He showed me what horse racing really is; joy, exhilaration, love, heartbreak, and beauty all in one.
Union Rags is the reason that I follow, love, and write about horse racing today.
You can see Union Rags and other Lane's End stallions by booking a tour through Visit Horse Country, an organization dedicated to creating more fans of the sport through tours of farms, tracks, and equine medical centers.
About Champions of the Track: Champions of the Track is dedicated to growing the popularity of horse racing by sharing photos, videos, and stories on our blog and social media pages. We hope that our content reaches new fans and rekindles the love of horse racing in older fans. We support reform and aftercare efforts. We want the sport of horse racing to improve and survive for future generations to enjoy.
If you enjoy the content posted by Champions of the Track and want to support our mission, please consider making a donation through Ko-Fi. These donations help us create and improve the content we put out!
Connect with Champions of the Track:
Like on Facebook
Follow on Twitter
Follow on Instagram
Subscribe on YouTube