The ever consistent Matz 'always looking' for his next Barbaro

December 10, 2019 11:00am
Beneath Churchill Downs' Twin Spires, 157,532 were on hand May 6, 2006, and another 12 million watched the 132nd Kentucky Derby on TV.

The camera seemed naturally attracted to No. 8 in the post parade. The dazzling bay colt with a wide white star on his forehead pranced while warming up his athletic frame for the biggest race of his life.

Then the lens rested on a slender, distinguished looking man. Dark hair, gray around the temples, he was Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer. His steely blue eyes gazed upon the horse, campaigned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson of Lael Stables and ridden by jockey Edgar Prado.

Off as the 6-1 second choice, Barbaro righted himself quickly after a stumble at the gate, and the Dynaformer colt wove his way between Kentucky Derby rivals until he was laying off the pace in third position. At this point Barbaro was pulling Prado out of the saddle. They were midway in the final turn.
Announcer Tom Durkin began an animated call: "And here comes Barbaro! The undefeated Barbaro comes up on the outside and he takes the lead as the field turns for home.... Barbaro turns it on! And they're coming to the finish and it is all Barbaro! In a sublime performance! He runs away from them all and leaves something left for the Preakness. Barbaro winning it by seven!" Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens had taken time off from riding and was working as an analyst when he said, "I hate to use the word 'superstar,' but we might be looking at one." Thoughts of a Triple Crown had moved from the recesses of our minds to the tips of our tongues. Barbaro held such promise. In the weeks before the Preakness Stakes, Maryland's bucolic Fair Hill Training Center was overrun with photographers and journalists. Fair Hill is, of course, where Matz stables his horses most of the year. During this time, he was polite but kept his focus on his brilliant colt. He stuck to his training schedule and only afterward did he answer questions.  Two weeks later, Barbaro went off as the overwhelming favorite in the Preakness Stakes. But only strides from the gate, he took an infamous misstep that shattered the colt's right-hind leg. Prado pulled Barbaro up, and the whites of the 3-year-old horse's eyes showed as he wobbled, punching the air with his injured limb in futility. Matz was by his horse's side as a cast was temporarily put on and Barbaro was vanned off to the New Bolton Hospital. Barbaro went through several operations, and his condition often changed. But the colt had one consistency: his trainer, the man who had the closest relationship with Barbaro, visited daily. Matz talked to the horse while wrapping him in bandages. By July, Barbaro could venture outside, grazing with Matz by his side. However, after the colt developed the hoof disease, laminitis, the decision was made the following January to euthanize Barbaro, the subject of so many hopes and prayers. Despite a traumatic season, years later Matz remembers Barbaro's talent first. "I wish I had another one," he quipped recently. Then, in a more serious tone, he continued: "To have a horse with that much ability, it was just an unfortunate thing that happened to him. "...There's no telling where he could have gone, with these big races today on the dirt or the turf. He was so good he could have done either one of them. When you have something like that, you're always looking for the next one. But if they come or not, that's a different story. He was just great." Matz did not grow up in a family of horsemen or equestrians. A neighbor whose lawn he mowed, however, had a couple of horses and invited the then-14-year-old to ride. Born the eldest of three sons, to a father who was a plumber in Shillington, Penn., Matz quickly took to it. He joined Berk's Saddle Club and soon became one of its best riders. Later, he learned the basics of horsemanship, including cleaning his tack, grooming the horse, and checking their legs for heat during his career as one of the best in competitive jumping. Matz was a natural in the saddle. He quickly rose through the ranks and began getting better horses with each positive step. A three-time Olympian, Matz won a silver medal in the 1996 games in Atlanta. His fellow Olympians chose him to carry the American flag at the conclusion of the competition. Riding ability was only one of the reasons he was given this honor. In 1989, Matz and his then-fiancee, DD, were on their way home after judging a jumping competition in Hawaii. Their flight's destination was Philadelphia, but it made an unscheduled stop in Sioux City, Iowa, after engine failure led to the loss of hydraulics and flight controls. When the plane touched down, it engulfed in flames and split in two. Matz was upside down with his seatbelt holding him in. He quickly released himself and saw three unaccompanied children. He told them to hold onto his belt, and they followed him off the burning plane. After DD had also successfully exited, Matz heard a baby crying. He went back in and carried it to safety, not allowing the child to add to the total 111 fatalities from the crash. In 2000, Matz retired from his first career and began training thoroughbreds full-time. The Jacksons, Barbaro's owners, soon became clients. They still live in the same neighborhood, in Coatesville, Penn., as Michael, DD and their four children. While Matz no longer trains for the Jacksons, he did oversee two of Barbaro's full siblings, Nicanor and Lentanor, before the transition was made. "I admire him very much," Prado, the Hall of Fame jockey, said of Matz. "He does a great job and is a wonderful person. We've done well together." Prado was also in the irons when the Matz-trained Round Pond won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Rusty Arnold has known Matz well for 30 years. He even trained a couple of Matz's horses during his competitive show jumping career. Arnold, now also thoroughbred racehorse trainer, said, "Michael's obviously a tremendous trainer as well as person. He's won the Breeders' Cup and he's won the Belmont (with Union Rags). He has excelled in two different disciplines, show jumping and training thoroughbred racehorses. He's a really good horseman." I told Michael he seemed quite grounded during the ups and downs of his career -- and, given the crash, life. The source? "It's the way I was raised," he said. "I was also taught to treat people the way you would want to be treated." A typical day for Matz begins at 5 a.m. when he mounts his stable pony, Messaging, and holds the reins in his left hand with a stopwatch in the right. He watches his horses carefully as his exercise riders heed his instructions. This ritual continues until the horses are washed, legs are checked for heat, then bandaged. DD and their children come to Fair Hill to ride in the late afternoon. Matz has won 764 races in his career. While 2006 stands out as his highest-earning season, he continues to plug away with the Union Rags mare Tequilita a three-time graded stakes winner in recent years. Matz is a proponent of the industry taking on uniform rules -- "that's for sure" -- adding, "Now every state is different and everybody has a different opinion. We need to have one way to go." Speaking of, he was in the process of transitioning his horses from Fair Hill to the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida. That habit began 20 years ago, and along the way Barbaro won the Laurel Futurity, then went on to take four more races down south before the Derby. Matz is waiting patiently for another one like him.


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Meet Mary Dixon Reynolds

Mary Dixon Reynolds’ passion for horses began at an early age. She grew up riding, showing and training Arabians. The great Curlin brought her into horse racing and the celebrated filly, Rachel Alexandra, solidified her love of the sport. The amateur handicapper found beginner's luck during her first outing to a racetrack at Colonial Downs near Richmond, Va.

From a small town in the the Tar Heel state, Mary Dixon studied English literature and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for three years before graduating at Guilford College. She shares a passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald with her favorite writer, the late William L. Nack, whose books she possesses and are well worn from rereading.

Mary Dixon first appeared on Horse Racing Nation as a guest columnist, writing articles about California Chrome, his fan base, and the great filly Songbird. She aspires to bring new people into our sport and to promote thoroughbred aftercare, recognizing that for our sport to thrive, we must take care of our athletes after they leave the track

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