Pressure of Derby nothing to Matz

Surviving crash of airliner leaves all else in shade

Horse Racing


BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- The cell phone rings in Michael Matz's pocket and he excuses himself to take the call.

"The owners need four more seats added to their reservations at the track restaurant," said Matz, hanging up and dialing another number to make the arrangements at Gulfstream Park. "It's very difficult to get tables and I've been taking care of this for them. But sometimes I feel more like a secretary than a trainer."

It is Kentucky Derby season and Matz is definitely a trainer, with 50 thoroughbreds in his care here and back at his Fair Hill (Md.) Training Center base.

Behind him, just a short way down the shed row at the Palm Meadows Training Center, Barbaro (pronounced Barbero) is sticking his gorgeous chestnut head out of a stall and watching everything going on around him.

Last October, Barbaro was shipped to the Fair Hill Training Center from Ocala, Fla., by owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who live in Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from Matz. After an impressive winter campaign, Barbaro is now the undefeated 8-5 favorite in tomorrow's $1 million, Grade I Florida Derby, a historic Kentucky Derby prep race, at Gulfstream.

So the media is gathered early, beginning the digging process that will attempt to unveil every interesting tidbit of the trainer's life. For some, this process and the building pressure that comes with trying to get a horse to Churchill Downs is a trial of nerves and a discovery of self.

But Matz, perhaps more than any other trainer on the Derby trail this year or any year, has already faced more pressure than any of us would ever want to.

Yesterday, on a warm, sweet-smelling morning, with horses munching their breakfast oats, Matz tried to shrug off reporters' questions about his past. "I can't imagine what interest there could be" in an incident that occurred 17 years ago, he said.

But, with gentle nudging, the story emerges.

In 1989, he and his future wife, D.D. Alexander, on their way back from a horse show in Hawaii, missed their Denver connection to Chicago and wound up on United Flight 232. The plane, which carried 296 passengers, crashed and landed upside down in an Iowa cornfield.

Matz and many other passengers were watching a video program about that year's Triple Crown series between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer when the plane suddenly lost an engine and went down.

One hundred and two passengers died, but Matz, who had noticed three young children in the seats around him, picked himself up off the inside roof of the passenger cabin, gathered the children and ushered them to safety.

He hoped his fiancee, who was seated several rows in front of him, would follow him out. Once outside, he waited for her to appear. She didn't, but smothering amounts of smoke did, and he went back in to find her.

On that foray, he heard a baby crying and rescued the infant from a luggage compartment. Still, he couldn't find his fiancee.

"I was running around like a madman, frantically looking for her for 45 minutes," he said yesterday, his blue eyes seeming to look inward, remembering. "And then this rescue truck went by and there she was with the three kids. Those kids continue to keep in touch with my wife."

Matz said it was just one of those things. Something you expect to happen to other people, not to you.

"I was never in a war or even in the armed services," said the 55-year-old. "No one knows how you will react in a pressure situation. In a plane crash, you don't know. You don't practice that. You just do the best you can and my wife and I were fortunate to get out."

So when you ask him about feeling pressure in tomorrow's race or in anticipation of the Kentucky Derby, it almost seems a silly question. Pressure? What pressure? he might ask.

"It's just exciting," Matz said. "It's like when I was riding in the Olympics. It's an exciting time and not nerve-wracking at all. Barbaro gives you confidence. He knows how to win."

For 20 years, Matz competed in the Olympics as a member of the U.S. equestrian team. In 1996, he won a silver team medal for show-horse jumping and was chosen to carry the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies.

But it was in an earlier Olympics, in Montreal in 1976, that he learned an early lesson about pressure that established the basis of his thoroughbred training program that is currently befuddling longtime racing observers.

"In Montreal, our team spent so much time riding against each other in an effort to be completely prepared that by the time we got to the competition, we had no horse left," Matz said. "I said then, whatever I do in the future, I want to make sure I have a competitive horse when it's time to go for the prize."

With that in mind, Matz has spaced Barbaro's races between five and six weeks apart. The results have been four wins - three on grass, including an eight-length victory in the Laurel Futurity - and one on dirt, or rather in the mud, when he earned a three-quarters-length victory in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, Feb. 4.

"To hear some people talk, you'd think I invented a new voodoo," he said. "All of [Barbaro's] races have been five to six weeks apart and now he'll run the Florida Derby, with an eight-week gap. He'll come up on the [Kentucky Derby] five weeks after that. It should fit his schedule perfectly. I'll have a fresh horse."

Reminded that no horse since Needles in 1956 has won the Kentucky Derby coming off a five-week gap, Matz grinned.

"Needles," he said. "Don't you think 50 years is a long-enough wait for someone to do it again?"

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