Breakaway Barbaro

Colt tramples field, leaving behind 27 years without a Md. victor in Derby

Md.-trained horse wins Derby

May 07, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG | JOHN EISENBERG,SUN REPORTER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As 157,536 fans roared in appreciation beneath clear blue skies, a horse with strong Maryland connections won the Kentucky Derby yesterday for the first time in 27 years.

Barbaro, a dark bay colt who won his first major race at Laurel Park and spent last summer and fall at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, pulled away in the stretch at Churchill Downs and won in a runaway.

He is the first Derby winner with significant ties to Maryland since Spectacular Bid in 1979.

It's a much-needed positive development for the Maryland racing industry, which has sagged in the past few years, at least partly because of the state legislature's not legalizing slots gambling, and then was almost brought to a halt last winter by an outbreak of the equine herpes virus.

When the blue-and-green silks worn by Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, surged far ahead of the race's other 19 horses in the stretch run yesterday, racing officials and fans from Florida, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Kentucky, as well as Maryland, began claiming him as their own.

But while those other states' connections to the horse are legitimate, there is no doubt the 2006 Derby winner began to develop on Maryland soil.

With the first jewel of the Triple Crown in hand, Barbaro will come back to the state and try to win the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course on May 20.

A victory there and in the Belmont Stakes on June 10 would make the colt the first Triple Crown winner in thoroughbred racing since Affirmed in 1978.

"I think we have a real chance to do it," said Prado, a former star rider at Laurel Park and Pimlico who, like Barbaro, first began to develop in Maryland.

Gretchen Jackson, who bred and owns Barbaro with her husband, Roy, said yesterday that the colt will travel from Kentucky to Fair Hill, a 350-acre training center, and take it easy for at least a few days before coming to Pimlico for the Preakness.

Although the Jacksons are Pennsylvanians and they bred the colt in Kentucky, the horse's trainer, Michael Matz, lives in Collegeville, Pa., just across the Maryland line.

He trains his horses every summer and fall at Fair Hill, sending them to run at Delaware Park, Laurel, Pimlico and other Eastern tracks.

Almost exactly a year ago, Barbaro arrived at Fair Hill as an untested 2-year-old, having been raised on the Jacksons' farm in West Grove, Pa.

Matz, a former equestrian rider who turned to training thoroughbreds after winning a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics, was given orders to prepare the colt to race.

The work was done at Fair Hill.

"Fair Hill is a very good training center, and it's close to where I live and close to where the Jacksons live," Matz said yesterday. "It's a beautiful facility. There's a lot you can do with a horse at a place like that. I think [Barbaro] liked it."

Matz waited until the fall to start him for the first time, and he galloped home a winner by 8 1/2 lengths in a maiden race (for nonwinners) held on the grass course at Delaware Park.

The horse followed that up with a similarly easy victory in the Laurel Futurity, another grass race for 2-year-olds thought to have a chance to run in the Triple Crown races.

Competing against 12 opponents, he sat in second place for the bulk of the 1 1/16-mile race before surging into the lead and pulling away to win by eight lengths.

But as impressive as that win was, Barbaro was still just another Mid-Atlantic horse flying below the national radar; his Futurity victory was overshadowed by another major stakes race at Laurel that day.

His profile began to rise when Matz took him to Florida, where the trainer races every winter. Barbaro was given one more race on grass, which he won, before moving onto dirt tracks as preparation for the Triple Crown.

Barbaro captured the Holy Bull Stakes and prestigious Florida Derby to enter yesterday's Kentucky Derby with a 5-for-5 career record.

Coincidentally, when the horses left the starting gate yesterday, the betting favorite was another Maryland-based horse, Sweetnorthernsaint, a gelding owned and trained by Baltimore-area residents and based at Laurel.

Pushed well back in the early going, Sweetnorthernsaint found room to run coming up the backstretch and moved up into position to charge, but he never made anything resembling a move as Barbaro pulled away in front of him.

Finishing seventh, Sweetnorthernsaint became the third Maryland-based horse to lose as the Derby favorite since Spectacular Bid's 1979 triumph.

The others were Private Terms, who finished ninth in 1988, and Captain Bodgit, who finished second by a nose in 1997.

Spectacular Bid, trained and ridden by Marylanders Bud Delp and Ron Franklin, swept the Derby and Preakness to become the toast of the American sports world before losing in the Belmont to fall short of a Triple Crown.

Now, 27 years later, another horse that calls Maryland home is going to try to take the same steps -- and one more.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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