The son of Dynaformer was facing a formidable task. A brilliant three-time winner on turf, Barbaro had only run once on dirt prior to this start, battling to a hard-fought victory in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull Stakes (G3) on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park. For the Florida Derby, Barbaro was stepping up in class and stretching out to 1 1/8 miles while breaking from an outside post… and he would face these obstacles while returning from a two-month layoff, an unorthodox approach for the era.
The break between starts was orchestrated by trainer Michael Matz to give Barbaro the best chance at peaking five weeks later in the Kentucky Derby, the ultimate goal for the obviously gifted colt. In planning the strategy, Matz — a former Olympic show jumper — recalled a lesson he learned 30 years prior when trying to become the final U.S. qualifier for the 1976 Olympics.
“All the teams were fighting against each other to see who would ride in that last spot, and when we did finally ride in the Olympics, I had no horse left,” Matz told the The Palm Beach Post in a story published March 30, 2006. “And I said from that day whatever I do, whatever competition I go in, I want to make sure I can be competitive in it, not just to say you went there.”
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With the Kentucky Derby looming as Barbaro’s primary target, the Florida Derby was a prep race in the truest sense, and there was a chance he would prove vulnerable while facing 10 talented rivals. There was Sharp Humor, winner of the Swale Stakes (G2); Sunriver, a fast allowance winner at Gulfstream; and Flashy Bull, runner-up in the Fountain of Youth (G2). These three and seven others challenged Barbaro in the Florida Derby, and every last one had run within the previous five weeks, giving them an edge in fitness over the conservatively-raced Lael Stables runner.
Under the circumstances, surely Barbaro couldn’t win, right?
When the gates opened on a sunny afternoon at Gulfstream, it seemed — for a time — as though handicapping logic would prevail. Barbaro was a little slow at the start, but he recovered to race in second place around the first turn and down the backstretch, pressing Sharp Humor through steady fractions of :23.45, :47.35, and 1:11.37. Rounding the far turn, Barbaro advanced under the urging of jockey Edgar Prado, reaching even terms with Sharp Humor and briefly putting his head in front.
But Sharp Humor wasn’t finished, battling on fiercely along the rail. The voice of track announcer Vic Stauffer rose with excitement as he described the action: “It is Barbaro to the final furlong. He is a neck in front of Sharp Humor, who will not go away!”
At the eighth pole, Barbaro drifted in under urging, and Sharp Humor drifted out. The two fighters collided and Barbaro was knocked briefly off stride, losing momentum as Sharp Humor reclaimed the lead. It looked like a literal winning blow
But in the final furlong of the Florida Derby, racing fans at Gulfstream Park learned Barbaro was no ordinary horse. Digging deep, finding more, he re-rallied under Prado’s urging. By the sixteenth pole Barbaro was on virtually even terms with Sharp Humor, and in the final yards he pulled clear to win by a tenacious half-length in 1:49.01.
It didn’t make a lot of handicapping sense, but then again, the great ones routinely prove you wrong.
“It’s the first time anybody has come back at him,” Matz’s assistant, Peter Brette, said in The Tampa Tribune on April 2, 2006. “He needed it. This race will make a man of him.”
Brette’s words proved prophetic. Five weeks later, Barbaro delivered an emphatic victory in the Kentucky Derby, powering clear in the Churchill Downs homestretch to dominate by 6 1/2 lengths. It was the largest margin of victory in the Derby since 1946 and a testament not only to Barbaro’s extraordinary talent, but also Matz’s stellar horsemanship.
J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.