Derby winner kicks back

Barbaro will relax and prepare for the Preakness at the Fair Hill training facility in rural Maryland

May 09, 2006|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

ELKTON -- As Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro sprinted into history at Churchill Downs on Saturday, the dark bay's every stride was viewed by millions and captured by a blimp-mounted camera overhead. Yesterday at Fair Hill Training Center, a lone hawk circling above and just a handful of others watched horse racing's newest star nonchalantly graze in a paddock.

Clearly, the setting and tempo of Fair Hill are essential to the plans of Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, as the two prepare for the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown, on May 20.

"Look around you. Looks pretty nice," Matz said of the training center, secluded in rolling hills and woods, where he runs his Vintage Farm stable. "The horses seem to do well."

For training thoroughbreds, Fair Hill is the antithesis of a racetrack, and though both have their advantages -- the track has a distinctively keen competitive atmosphere but a country training facility is considered more settling for the horses -- the northern Maryland center seems more a match for the laid-back, laconic Matz.

"It suits me," he said succinctly, although he noted that he does keep some horses at a racetrack.

"And the horses can have some peace and quiet," Matz added. "They can go out on the trails and do lots of things."

Condo for horses

The training center consists of 17 barns, a mile dirt track, a wood-chip track 7/8 of a mile long, and a veterinary center spread over 300 acres, which is part of a state-owned, 5,600-acre natural resources management area.

In a humorous-sounding arrangement, a condominium association leases the training center land from the state; each stall represents one condo unit.

Last November, the center was the focus of less-welcomed attention when a barn fire killed 24 horses. But some trainers here say the conditions offered at Fair Hill represent an ideal for the animals.

"The perception is that at a racetrack, the horse can be exposed to other horses as well as the racing world," said Chuck Lawrence, who has been training horses for 10 years at Fair Hill, north of Elkton.

"But here you can have the best of both worlds. We have 466 horses, so there's plenty of opportunity for horses to be with other horses out on the track. And here you can have the quiet and relaxed time with your horse that you probably can't have at a track. More than anything, it's for the horse's mind, trying to keep him happy."

Keeping Barbaro happy is central to Matz's strategy.

After a 12-hour van trip from Kentucky and a 5 a.m. arrival in Maryland, Barbaro spent most of yesterday resting. In the late afternoon, he and Matz took the short walk from the white-block barn where the Derby champion is stabled to a grazing paddock.

With Matz, an Olympic silver-medal winning equestrian, holding the lead shank, Barbaro first posed for a few photos, then enjoyed a leisurely snack of grass and dandelions.

"Just trying to keep him quiet and calm the next couple of days," Matz said after his 30 minutes or so of quiet time with Barbaro. "Let him get over his race and get him ready for the next one."

At Fair Hill, trainers have use of both the dirt and wood-chip tracks, where a clocker's tower provides the only perch for spectating. It is there, surrounded by pastoral tranquillity, that Barbaro is expected to do the lion's share of his training for the Preakness, where the grandstand, clubhouse and infield will teem with screaming fans.

Recreation area

The natural resources area that makes up the bulk of the Fair Hill complex offers trout fishing and some deer hunting and is veined with trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

People who bring their pleasure ponies to Fair Hill for a leisurely afternoon ride will follow in the hoof prints of the thoroughbreds that train there, including Barbaro.

That the park exists is the result of the enthusiastic accumulation of Maryland and Pennsylvania land during the first half of the 20th century by a member of the du Pont family, an heir to the chemical company fortune. Fair Hill is situated on what was formerly the fox hunting estate of William du Pont Jr. Nine years after he died in 1965, his estate sold the Maryland land to the state.

In a historical twist, one of du Pont's own horses, Dauber, won the Preakness in 1938.

Low-key approach

Today, the horse trainers and owners who chose to use Fair Hill rather than a racetrack to prep their horses would likely be described as taking a decidedly low-profile approach.

"Owners like the status of having their horses at the track, and Fair Hill has not been considered as having status," said training center manager Sally Goswell. "But I think that now we may be getting a little more status."

Meanwhile, the reason for all of Fair Hill's sudden celebrity was implacable yesterday, except for momentary bursts of sass going to and from the paddock -- some of which might be residual feistiness from Saturday.

Asked whether he believed Barbaro was aware of what he accomplished at Churchill Downs, Matz gave a wry smile: "Oh, I think he knows."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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