LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- She grew up on her family's Virginia farm, riding before she could walk. She led around her father's polo ponies and was an accomplished steeplechase rider in her late teens. She majored in political science at Columbia and interned for the Kennedy administration, handling the White House mail. Then fate took Phyliss Mills down hard.
In 1962, at 21, she broke her neck in an auto accident. Although she never again would walk unaided, that couldn't break her spirit. She modeled for and married noted painter Jamie Wyeth. She fought for the rights of the disabled. She became a champion driver of carriage horses. She bred jumpers for 40 years, but unlike her parents, James and Alice duPont Mills, she never owned a star like Glad Rags, Devil's Bag or Gone West.
In March 2009, while wheelchair-bound at 68, Phyliss Mills Wyeth got lucky. Her mating of Dixie Union with Tempo, a mare she inherited from her mother, produced a rangy bay colt with a white blaze and three white socks. On her accountant's advice, and against her wishes, she sold him for $145,000 at the August 2010 Saratoga yearling sale to Long Island-based IEAH Stables. Soon she had seller's remorse. Six months later, her friend and adviser, 76-year-old Russell Jones, told her the colt would be auctioned again, at a Florida sale for 2-year-olds in training. She ordered Jones: "Get him! Just get him. I'll borrow from the bank."
Wyeth set a limit of $390,000, a figure she "pulled out of the air," according to Jones. "Somebody bid $385,000," he said. "We bid $390,000. End of story. To me, it meant this horse was supposed to come home."
And that's how Phyliss Wyeth lost and regained her horse of a lifetime, Union Rags, one of the favorites for Saturday's Kentucky Derby. If it sounds like a movie, it is: Ed Tettemer's engaging documentary "Union Rags: An American Love Story." Adding to the Disney-like plot, Michael Matz, who developed the 2006 Derby winner, the beloved, ill-fated Barbaro, also trains Union Rags. "She's a wonderful person to work for," Matz said. "She told me when she got on the plane to come down here, she cried."
Wyeth's feisty side came out Wednesday after Union Rags drew post 4. She and Matz wanted to be nearer the middle of the gate. "It could have been better," she said in a bummed-out tone from beneath a gold and brown Union Rags cap. "But one, two or three would be worse." Her husband, Jamie, smiled and said, "Just happy to be here."
A 5-furlong workout in 59.80 seconds for jockey Julien Leparoux last Saturday at Churchill Downs raised Matz's confidence that Union Rags can get the roses. "I've had one great horse in Barbaro," he said, "and I think I might have a second one."
Union Rags, a standout 2-year-old, has won 4 of 6 starts, including the Fountain of Youth by 4 lengths Feb. 26 at Gulfstream. Five weeks later, he ran third at 2-5 odds in the Florida Derby, hurt by a slow pace and traffic problems. Matz thinks Union Rags is primed to bounce back, and he's glad to be part of this unlikely sentimental saga.
"For her to have a horse like this, after what she's been through most of her life, I think it's pretty special," Matz said. "I think it's a great tribute to her that she sold the horse, she had to have him back and she bought him back."
Wyeth would rather have skipped the melodrama. "I never had such affection for a horse," she said. "I always wanted to keep him."