Whose Horse?

Five states can lay claim to Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, a well-traveled colt whose connections in some cases are a stretch

May 17, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Barbaro's Kentucky Derby victory was easy - a lot easier than deciding which state gets to brag about it.

The horse is stabled in Maryland. His owners are from Pennsylvania. His trainer races a lot at Delaware Park.

He prepped for the Derby in Florida. He was bred and raised in Kentucky. His parents once ran through a field in North Dakota.

Just kidding about that last one.

But seriously, fans and racing officials in five states claimed the horse, or a piece of him, when he crossed the finish line ahead of the field 11 days ago at Churchill Downs. A lot of newspapers, including this one, ran headlines that essentially stated, "We Win Derby!"

But who really did?

Seeking an answer, I drove to the Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton, where Michael Matz trains Barbaro, and asked the question in baseball terms: Who gets the win?

"I'm happy he's such a popular horse. Everyone loves a winner," Matz said with a smile.

Sorry, I replied, there's no dodgeball in horse racing. And I asked again: Who gets the win?

"OK. He's never been anywhere but here at Fair Hill. And to Florida [for the past two winters]," the trainer said. "He's been to Delaware for one race. He's never been to Pennsylvania.

"But I don't think he has a problem with any of the states."

Translation: He's more Maryland than any other state, at least for now, although Gretchen Jackson, one of his co-owners, recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer that if she had to choose a rightful home state, it would come down to Pennsylvania or Kentucky, the latter being where he lived for more than a year before moving to Fair Hill.

Basically, it's complicated, like Russian literature is complicated. There's room for interpretation, and everyone is related.

Sweetnorthernsaint, another horse running in Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, actually has deeper Maryland roots. He's stabled at Laurel Park. His co-owners live in Kingsville and on Charles Street. His trainer grew up in Perry Hall. Go to war, Miss Agnes!

But Sweetnorthernsaint is also a Florida-bred who prepped for the Kentucky Derby by winning the Illinois Derby, so, again, it's complicated.

Racing people are eager to claim these horses because, of course, such attachments attract fans and generate interest, and given racing's decades-long decline, they're desperate. They'd rather not point out how blurred things can get when you dig deeper.

In Barbaro's case, for instance, the horse lives in Maryland now only because Matz got mad at Delaware Park a few years ago. He used to stable at the slots-rich track and run his horses up and down the East Coast, but then, according to Matz, the late William Rickman Sr., who owned the track, yelled at him one day in the paddock for not running enough horses in Delaware.

"I said I'm never going to put myself in this position again, where if he didn't like me and didn't want me there, he could ruin my livelihood by saying I couldn't [stable] there," Matz recalled. "I've got six children, and I didn't want someone telling me they were going to kick me out."

So Matz moved his horses across the Maryland state line to Fair Hill, where he bought a barn, then built a larger barn next door a few years later. Magically, his Delaware-based horses became Maryland-based, just in time for Barbaro to come along and become our guy, not their guy.

OK, so he isn't the second coming of Cal Ripken, in that sense, but hey, times are desperate and you take what you can. We'll call the movie Revenge of the Slots-Deprived.

Frankly, throughout all of sports, not just racing, the whole home team thing isn't as simple as it used to be. The Orioles used to be Baltimore's team, but then they took the city's name off their road jerseys and became a regional franchise aiming to draw from, among many places, southern Pennsylvania and Delaware - the heart of Barbaro country, where, safe to say, more fans root for the Phillies than Orioles.

We should probably just lump that whole tri-state area into a big, gloppy bucket and call it the Mid-Atlantic. That's the best description of where Barbaro comes from, given how Matz and the horse have floated from state to state.

But things don't work that way. Individual states compete to produce better horses, better racing, better everything, and they want what they have coming. The race to claim Barbaro could get even more heated if he wins Saturday and heads to the Belmont with a chance to win a Triple Crown.

That might call for drastic measures. Can we trade the Orioles for a horse?

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

The states he's been in

Barbaro's connection to states claiming him:

Maryland --Has lived at Fair Hill near Elkton for more than a year. Won first stakes race at Laurel Park.

Kentucky --Foaled there on April 29, 2003. Lived there for more than a year before coming to Fair Hill.

Florida --Spent past two winters there. Swept state's Kentucky Derby prep races, including Florida Derby.

Pennsylvania --Co-owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson and trainer Michael Matz live there.

Delaware --Won his first race at Delaware Park. Matz used to stable there. Closest track to Fair Hill.

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