Unbreakable Bond

May 08, 2006
May 08, 2006

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May 8, 2006

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Unbreakable Bond

Trainer Michael Matz has a Kentucky Derby favorite in Barbaro and the enduring support of three siblings whose lives he helped save during a 1989 airline crash

Three adultsiblings will sit in a spectator box this Saturday at Churchill Downs to watchthe Kentucky Derby. They will dress for the occasion, bet foolishly on slowhorses and surely sip a mint julep or two. Come late afternoon, when the Downs'fabled twin spires cast shadows across the sandy loam of the track, they willcheer in full throat for Barbaro, a tall, long-bodied 3-year-old colt to whomthey are linked by a tether that reaches back 17 years. ¶ Late on the afternoonof July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232--a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 boundfrom Denver to Chicago with 296 passengers and crew--suffered what the NationalTransportation Safety Board called "a catastrophic failure" of anengine, breaking into pieces as it crashed-landed at Sioux Gateway Airport inSioux City, Iowa, and spilling into a cornfield. Jody Roth was 14, his sisterMelissa 12 and their brother Travis 9. They were the children of a collegeprofessor and a junior high school teacher, traveling from their home inLaramie, Wyo., to visit their grandparents in Glens Falls, N.Y. ¶ The crashkilled 112 of the people onboard. Melissa and Travis were helped from thewreckage by fellow passenger Michael Matz, then 38 and a world-class equestrianrider, who today trains Barbaro. At the time of the engine failure, Matz hadbeen talking to Travis about the in-flight video they were watching, whichchronicled the 1989 Triple Crown races between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer."I didn't know anything about horse racing," recalls Travis. "Heseemed like he knew a lot." As the pilot warned of an impending roughlanding, Matz played cards with Travis to keep him calm.

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On the ground Matzreunited Melissa and Travis with Jody, who had been sitting two rows in frontof his siblings. "Run away," Matz told the kids at the jagged openingwhere the fuselage had been cleaved, "and don't look back." Onceoutside, Matz and his girlfriend, D.D. Alexander (now his wife), took care ofthe three Roth children for more than 12 hours, shielding the kids from thehorrors of the crash until their mother arrived.

"They let usstay children that day," says Melissa (Roth) Radcliffe, now 29 and themother of two. "They made us trust that everything would be all right, andthen they stayed with us. My memories are of being in a crash, then eating icecream and watching television. I remember nothing traumatic. That's because ofMichael and D.D."

Leslie Roth, thekids' mother, says, "Michael treated our children as if they were hischildren. They might have been forced to grow up in that moment, but Michaeldidn't let that happen."

Jerry Schemmel,then deputy commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association and nowplay-by-play announcer for the Denver Nuggets, was also on Flight 232. "Iremember that Michael was calm, businesslike and in no way trying to savehimself," Schemmel says. "As far as the scene, I think it would havebeen real damaging to those children to see some of the things many of us saw.I still have nightmares. I had one just the other night. Believe me, it remainsvivid in your mind."

On a warm Aprilafternoon, less than three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Matz, now 55, satat his desk in a spartan tack room in his barn at Delaware Park in Wilmington.He and D.D. never sought celebrity from their survival or heroism, even asmovies were made and books were written. "We never saw the crash as our 15minutes of fame," says D.D. They competed in a horse show a week after thecrash and returned home to Collegeville, Pa., to find their luggage from 232had been returned. "In body bags, smelling like jet fuel," saysMichael. "We cleaned everything up and got on with our lives."

It isn't that Matzdoesn't have memories. He can tell the riveting story of hearing a baby's cry,walking back into the wreckage and holding frayed electrical cables out of theway so that Schemmel could carry 11-month-old Sabrina Michaelson to safety. Buthe summons those memories only when prompted. "We were lucky to get out. Iknow that," he says. "It was a bad time. A lot of people died. I try toforget about it."

Yet it isdifficult to hide in a spotlight. After winning a silver medal in team showjumping at the 1996 Olympics, Matz was elected by a panel of team captains tocarry the U.S. flag at the closing ceremonies largely because of what hadtranspired seven years earlier. "I told the people in the room that Michaelwas a great athlete and a great Olympian," says '96 equestrian captainRobert Dover, who spoke on Matz's behalf. "But I also told them that he wasa hero."

Now Barbaro bringsMatz back to center stage. The horse is a powerful dark bay who is unbeaten infive career races and whose stalking victory in the April 1 Florida Derby hasmade him one of the favorites at Churchill Downs.

Matz is fightinghistory. Barbaro hasn't run since winning the Florida Derby in a stretch duelwith the speedy Sharp Humor, and not since Needles did it 50 years ago has ahorse won the Kentucky Derby after a layoff or five or more weeks. But Barbarois Matz's best horse since he started training thoroughbreds a year after the'96 Olympics, and he has been patient from the start.

Barbaro was foaledonly in late April 2003, didn't run a race until last October and, aftercompeting three times on turf (as the son of renowned turf sire Dynaformer),didn't race on dirt until February. He has never raced with fewer than 34 daysbetween starts. Standing nearly 17 hands high, Barbaro is so powerful andrambunctious that Matz has hesitated to sit on his back. Yet in full flight thecolt is a picture of grace. "He's so smooth, you could sit up on him anddrink a cup of tea," says Kim Brette, whose husband, Peter, is Matz'sassistant and Barbaro's exercise rider. Barbaro's long, gathering stride shouldbe a potent weapon in a race filled with early speed. "He doesn't mindgetting caught behind horses, he doesn't mind getting dirt in his face,"says Matz. "And I feel real confident about the [11/4-mile] distancefactor."

It is always astruggle to get a good 3-year-old to Churchill Downs, but Matz had a tryingwinter in other ways as well. On Dec. 16 D.D., 43, was found to have a form ofthyroid cancer; she underwent surgery on Jan. 9 and has been told by herdoctors that she is cancer-free. "A lot of people helped us through thattime," says Michael. The couple has four children, ages three to nine.(Michael has two grown children from a previous marriage.) Seventeen yearsafter Flight 232 the cancer episode has been another reminder of the value ofevery day of life.

The presence ofthe Roth siblings at Churchill Downs will reinforce that message. In 1996 mostof the family attended a post-Olympic celebration for Matz. He has not seen theRoths since then, but Leslie and her husband, Don, have stayed in touch withhim and D.D., exchanging letters and Christmas cards. Jody, 31, a financialplanner, lives in Fort Collins, Colo., with his wife and daughter. Melissa, whohas an engineering degree from Purdue, lives in Denver with her family. Travis,26, recently earned his Masters in water resources at the University of Wyoming(where Don is dean of the graduate school).

They are vibrant,successful adults, helped along one day by two strangers in a cornfield. "Iknow we feel a connection to Michael and D.D," says Melissa. "Theyreally are a part of us."

Together onSaturday they will pull for a horse. "I hope he wins," says Travis,once a scared little boy on a falling airplane. "But to be honest, itdoesn't really matter. Michael's life was a success a long time ago."

How the Race Will Be Run

THERE IS an abundance of speed in the Derby, includingthe blazing Sinister Minister and Sharp Humor, who will duel for the earlylead. Brother Derek (the probable morning line favorite), Lawyer Ron,Sweetnorthernsaint and Barbaro, all good horses, also like to be near thefront. Could this produce another suicidal pace, not unlike the one that set up50-1 long shot Giacomo's closing win last year? The best late-runners are A.P.Warrior, Bob and John, and Steppenwolfer. History, however, suggests thatconsecutive Derbys are seldom run the same way. Some of this year's classyspeedsters will hold up. And perhaps a closer will get a piece.

THE PICKS: 1. Sweetnorthernsaint; 2. Barbaro; 3. A.P.Warrior.


For the latest Derby news and analysis from Tim Layden,go to

PHOTOGARY ROTHSTEIN/ICON SMI (BARBARO)PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (SIBLINGS)SURVIVORS Matz led (from left) Travis, Melissa and Jody from the wreckage of Flight 232.PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesPERFECT SO FAR Matz (right) hopes to get the undefeated Barbaro (left) to the winner's circle for the sixth time. PHOTOBILL FRAKESSweetnorthernsaint