HOW SWIFTLY theTriple Crown talk changed, from uncertainty to the pursuit of greatness in twominutes. Before the start of the 132nd Kentucky Derby last Saturday, the raceappeared wide open. At least a half dozen good horses could not be separated byordinary handicapping tools. Any one of seven could win, said two-timeDerby-winning trainer Nick Zito. Any one of 10, said three-time winner BobBaffert. Parity reigned. There was no apparent superstar. ¬∂ As the 20-horsefield rumbled down the Churchill Downs backstretch, tossing clumps of lightbrown dirt into the clear, spring air, two sprinters--Keyed Entry and SinisterMinister--were dying on the lead. Lurking behind them was unbeaten Barbaro. Ina clubhouse box D.D. Matz, wife of Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, lookedthrough a pair of binoculars at Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, who, except tomake a casual glance over his shoulder, was as still as a statue on the colt'sback. He's totally on cruise control, she thought. ¬∂ In the tunnel that leadsfrom the paddock to the track Barbaro's assistant trainer, Peter Brette,watched the race on a 12-inch television monitor over the shoulder of DanHendricks, the paraplegic, wheelchair-bound trainer of morning-line favoriteBrother Derek. When Prado finally let Barbaro loose on the far turn, the horseshot to the lead. After opening three lengths at the top of the stretch,Barbaro appeared to be toying with the field. Brette began shouting, louderwith each exhortation: "Come on, Barbaro! Come on, Barbaro! Come on,Barbaro!" The massive, dark bay colt thundered away as the crowd of 157,536roared in support. At the finish Brette pulled his cellphone from his pocket,his hand quivering as he answered a call. "Awesome," he told a reporterstanding nearby. "It was over at the quarter pole."
Parity? Not somuch. Instead there is a superstar. Barbaro's 6 1/2-length margin of victoryover 30-1 shot Bluegrass Cat was the widest in the Derby since Triple Crownwinner Assault's eight-length win 60 years ago, and Barbaro became just thesecond undefeated winner of the race since Seattle Slew in 1977. Moreseductively, he ran his final quarter mile in a brisk 24.34 seconds withoutPrado touching him, the fastest Derby finish in 16 years. Barbaro galloped pastthe finish line with his ears pricked, scarcely blowing, as if he could circlethe track again. "Boy, he looked the part out there," Baffert said onSunday. "He reminds me of [2001 Preakness and Belmont winner] Point Given.And now he's got the tough one out of the way, so look out."
Thus beginsanother flirtation between horse racing and history, fueled by the beauty andease of Barbaro's win, yet tempered by a legacy of near misses. It has been 28years since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner, but based on hisDerby performance Barbaro forcefully suggested that he can end thatdrought.
He is headed tothe Preakness and the Belmont in capable hands. Matz, 55, brought Barbaro toChurchill Downs with only two career starts on dirt and five weeks betweenraces, a victory in the Florida Derby on April 1 having been his last outing.In the racing world, it was axiomatic that a horse could not win the Derby withfive weeks' rest, because it had not been done in 50 years. Matz trusted hisinstincts, which were honed through four decades, beginning with the afternoonin 1966 when George Kohl, for whom Matz did weekend chores as a teenager on afarm in Adamstown, Pa., invited him on a horse ride. "Mr. Kohl asked me ifI knew how to ride," recalls Matz. "I said, 'Oh, sure,' because Iwanted to keep my job. I had no idea what I was doing, but I just watched himand tried to do the same things."
May 14, 2006
Matz proved to bea gifted horseman. By 1976 he was an Olympic equestrian, and at the '96 AtlantaGames he won a silver medal in team jumping. A year later he switched totraining thoroughbreds.
The Kentucky Derbywas just Barbaro's second race in 13 weeks, but Matz had trained him to alethal sharpness. On the morning of the race Brette took Barbaro out for alight, one-mile gallop, and the colt nearly bolted at the sight of anotherhorse cruising past. "We only took him out to stretch his legs," saysMatz, "but he was ready to go at seven in the morning."
The victory addeda third major chapter to Matz's remarkable life: Plane crash hero, Olympicmedalist, Kentucky Derby winner. Sitting near Matz at Churchill Downs were JodyRoth, 31; Melissa Roth Radcliffe, 29; and Travis Roth, 26, all of whom Matzrescued from the crash of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 years ago(SI, May 8). "We were happy to share the day with Michael," Jody said."But to have Barbaro win, too, that's just too much." On Saturday nightthe siblings were making plans to attend the Preakness.
So, too, wereBarbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who met more than half a centuryago at a mixer for prep-school students in the Philadelphia area and have beenmarried for 46 years. From 1982 through 2000 Roy, 69, operated Convest, whichrepresented professional baseball players; he had previously been president oftwo minor leagues.
The Jacksons gotinto the horse business in the mid-'70s. Gretchen liked to ride, but Roydidn't. "Owning thoroughbreds was something we could do together," saysGretchen, 68. They have built Lael Farm in West Grove, Pa., into a substantialoperation, with more than 70 racehorses, broodmares and yearlings. They breedand sell many of their horses (including George Washington, who on Saturday inNewmarket, England, won the 2000 Guineas, one of the most prestigious races inEurope), eschewing emotional attachments. "These horses are not ourpets," says Gretchen. "You've got to operate as a business and avoidfalling in love with horses. We weren't smart with Barbaro. We lovedhim."
They loved him inno small part because he was fast and special from the very beginning. In thespring of 2002, the Jacksons bred their mare La Ville Rouge to Dynaformer,who's known for producing excellent turf horses that have the stamina to runlonger distances. The colt was foaled at Sanborn Chase Farm in Kentucky andnamed, unceremoniously, for a fictional foxhound in a lithograph that hangs inthe Jacksons' house. Barbaro was sent as a yearling to be broken at StephensThoroughbreds in Ocala, Fla. "We've had a lot of Dynaformer yearlings downhere," says owner John Stephens. "They tend to be big and long andrangy. Barbaro was all of those things, but he had muscle on him that theyusually don't."
In April 2005 the2-year-old Barbaro was sent to Matz's Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md.,to begin training for the racetrack. When Brette, 40, a native of England andformer champion jockey in Dubai, first worked Barbaro, he assumed he was aboarda 3-year-old. "He was so balanced and strong," says Brette, who becamethe colt's regular exercise rider. "You don't see that in such a younghorse."
Matz was soenamored of Barbaro, yet so respectful of his strength, that he asked Brette tocome out of retirement to ride the colt in his first start last October. "Ithought about it," says Brette, "but I wasn't sure I had thelungs." Jose Caraballo rode Barbaro to two victories as a 2-year-old;Prado, who won the Belmont in 2002 and '04, took over this winter with the sameresult. A day before the Derby, Matz stood outside Barn 42 on the Churchillbackstretch and told SI, "The surprise for me would be if he loses. This isthe kind of horse that gives you confidence."
There was oneharrowing moment on Derby day. Upon reaching the saddling stall in the paddock,Barbaro reared and twisted, banging his head against a wooden wall. Oncesaddled, however, he was positively regal. At nearly 17 hands high, Barbarotowered over many horses in the field. Yet he has an athleticism that belieshis size. Breaking from the No. 8 post Barbaro stumbled out of the gate, whichcan be suicidal in a race with such a large and anxious field, but Prado wasable to quickly get him into fourth place, just off the lead.
He cruised downthe backstretch, moving comfortably behind crisp fractions of 22.63 for thefirst quarter mile, 46.07 for the half and 1:10.88 for three quarters."Every step of the way he was running so easy," said Prado, who won hisfirst Derby in his seventh start. "Each time, he scares me a littlemore." When Prado asked Barbaro to run with three eighths of a mile to go,the Derby became laughable. Three jumps before the finish Prado eased up,letting the big horse drift under the wire and into his gallop-out.
Barbaro had goneoff as the 6-1 second betting choice, minimally behind Illinois Derby winnerSweetnorthernsaint, who finished a tiring seventh after challenging on thebackstretch. Among the other favorites, only Santa Anita Derby winner BrotherDerek was driving at the finish, to a dead heat for fourth with 24-1 shotJazil.
Matz'slight-racing approach leaves him with a fresh horse for the races ahead."I'd be lying if I said this isn't what I had in mind all along," hesaid on Monday. Any of Saturday's also-rans will need significant improvementto threaten Barbaro on May 20 at Pimlico or on June 10 at Belmont.
A familiar feelingof anticipation embraces Barbaro. Minutes after the trophy presentation in theChurchill Downs infield, D.D. Matz shuffled back across the track in her Derbydress and heels. "I feel like I'm walking through fog," she said."I feel like I'm in a dream." A sport shares her emotion and wills themoment to last five more weeks.
For more Triple Crown coverage from Tim Layden and acomplete preview of the Preakness, go to SI.com/more.
On Friday, Matz stood outside Barn 42 on the ChurchillDowns backstretch and said, "The surprise for me would be if he loses. Thisis the kind of horse that GIVES YOU CONFIDENCE."