Share this article

print logo

Union Rags trainer sees Barbaro parallels

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The life-sized statue sits at the front gate of Churchill Downs, a magnificent bronzed Barbaro in full stride, all four hooves off the ground and heading toward his greatest victory.

Muscular and athletic, its presence provokes quiet reflection of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner at the peak of his power and of his death, eight months later, following a horrific injury.

Some leave red roses, others snap photos.

Trainer Michael Matz is hoping another 3-year-old colt, Union Rags, can fill the hole in his barn and in his soul.

He sees the same promising signs from Union Rags, who is using the same stall as Barbaro and is the early second choice for Saturday's 138th Derby.

"They're both big, good-looking, fast and athletic. Union Rags still has to live up to what Barbaro did," Matz said.

Matz and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson all rode a roller coaster of emotion during Barbaro's eight-month fight that had the public rooting for his survival from the hoof infection that developed after he broke his leg in the opening strides of the Preakness two weeks after the Derby. Just when the colt seemed on the mend, another surgery would be needed and their hopes would sag again.

Late in 2006, the trio won the $2 million Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic with Round Pond, but their good luck ran out two months later when Barbaro was euthanized.

"He captured a lot of people's hearts," Matz said. "He didn't do much wrong. He was an undefeated horse. Every time we ran him, he won, except the time he got hurt. In the racing community, I think he brought a lot of people together. I even think when he did get hurt, he brought even more people together."

Matz stoically plowed ahead, with the Jacksons supplying him more horses to train, including Barbaro's baby brothers Nicanor and Lentenor.

Things abruptly changed in July, with the couple firing Matz after more than 10 years working together. The Jacksons told him it was a business decision, leaving Matz mystified and convinced he had said or done something to make them lose confidence in him.

Matz has said he will be forever grateful to the couple for giving him a Derby winner, although they no longer keep in touch.

Matz was unknown as a trainer outside the Mid-Atlantic area before Barbaro romped to a 6 1/2 -length win in the Derby. A three-time Olympic equestrian, he carried the U.S. flag in the closing ceremony at the 1996 Atlanta Games, and has ridden at the Buffalo International Horse Show. He turned to training thoroughbreds full time after failing to make the 2000 Olympics.

He has never been one to let tragedy or setbacks slow him down. In 1989, he and his future wife, D.D. Alexander, were passengers on a United Airlines flight that crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 111 people on board. The couple survived, and Matz heroically plucked four children -- three siblings and an 11-month-old baby -- from the wreckage.

The older kids reunited with Matz and his wife at the 2006 Derby to watch Barbaro become the sixth undefeated horse to win. The good feelings were dashed two weeks later with Barbaro's stunning breakdown at the Preakness.

"It probably changed us all in a little way," said Peter Brette, Matz's assistant. "One minute you think you got probably the best horse in the world, and then the next minute, he's broken. You spend six months sort of hoping he can survive, and that was a bit of a shock really."

If Matz grieved, he did it privately, in keeping with his cool demeanor around the racetrack.

"If that had happened to some of us, it probably would have been a little hard, but he handles it well," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "He's not going to get too high or too low, which is pretty good in our profession if you can do that. When you're secure in what you're doing and your abilities, you handle all that adversity."

There are no comments - be the first to comment