Trained in success

Michael Matz once wrestled as a lightweight

he's now a heavyweight around track with Barbaro

May 18, 2006|By MIKE KLINGAMAN | MIKE KLINGAMAN,SUN REPORTER

In his high school yearbook, Michael Matz worried about the future.

Classmates aspired to college or careers. Matz set a lesser goal.

"I hope I get a job," he wrote.

He found one in a stable line of work. The quiet, unassuming kid who drifted through his classes 40 years ago is trainer of Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner and favorite in Saturday's Preakness Stakes.

Before that, Matz was a world-class equestrian, three-time Olympian and silver medalist in the 1996 Games who carried the American flag during closing ceremonies.

Not bad for a guy who could have been voted Most Likely To Drop Out Of Sight.

"You would think other high-profile people in your [graduating] class would do stuff like that," said Phil Ertel, a classmate at Governor Mifflin High in Shillington, Pa. "What more can Michael do now but win the Triple Crown?"

Back then, no one knew Matz had an affinity for horses, said Ertel, a lifelong friend.

"Once, as kids, the two of us went riding at a rent-a-horse place," he said. "I couldn't control my horse; it was like going ice-skating for the first time. Michael? He did fine."

In high school, Matz's only athletic success came in wrestling. At 100 pounds, he earned praise as a fierce lightweight who won back-to-back championships in Berks County in 1967-68.

"He was a determined little rascal," said Harry Steever, then his coach. "In practice, he'd often beat up on guys 15 pounds bigger."

To maintain their competitive weights, Mifflin's wrestlers regularly dined on hard-boiled eggs, the coach said. Matz went a step further.

"He ate the eggshell too, on purpose, so his mouth would get sore and he couldn't eat any more," Steever said.

"Yep, Michael was one tough hombre."

At 16, Matz got a job mowing grass on a friend's farm. There were horses there. He took to hanging around the stables. Soon enough, he was riding the horses and hobnobbing with horsemen.

"Michael just caught `the bug,' " said a brother, Steve Matz, of Hampstead. "Ever since, he has been moving up the horse ranks.

"Yeah, he's been lucky, but Michael is so focused and intense that when he does something, he makes his own luck, just like wrestling."

Five years after high school, Matz -- a plumber's son -- graduated to the U.S. equestrian team where, over 20 years, he competed in three world championships and four Pan American Games, winning two gold medals.

"I'm proud of him," said Steever. "The fact that Michael rubbed elbows with people who had education, class and money rubbed off on him something fierce and made him grow up fast. I mean, it's not like hanging around the pool room; how much do you grow up there?"

In 1996, as his show-jumping career wound down, Matz began training racehorses. At 55, he has not swayed from his recipe for success, said Peter Brette, his assistant at the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County.

"He's a dedicated, ambitious perfectionist, right down to the cleaning of his stalls," Brette said. "Things must be done his way. At the same time, he's a sponge, soaking up the way other trainers train and riders ride. Michael's wheels are always turning."

In the most harrowing experience of his life, Matz brought the same cool-headed, methodical approach to the task at hand. In 1989, he was aboard a United flight that crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 of the 296 people aboard.

Through the smoky wreckage, Matz led two children to safety, where they met up with a third sibling. Matz and his fiancee, D.D. Alexander, who also survived, stayed with the youngsters until their folks arrived the next day.

"Today, all of our lives are on a good track because of Michael," said Melissa Radcliffe, 29, an electrical engineer and mother of two. "The plane crash could have derailed all of that, or at least left us with post-traumatic stress. He and D.D. shielded us from everything and kept us from wandering around in that cornfield and seeing the bad stuff.

"They made that a non-issue in our lives."

Two weeks ago, those kids, now grown, attended the Derby and reunited with Matz. Before the race, the trainer took Radcliffe and her brothers, Travis and Jody Roth, to his barn to meet Barbaro and to feed him peppermints. (The three said they are unsure whether they will be coming to the Preakness.)

"He [Barbaro] nipped all of us," Radcliffe said. "Both of my brothers got little hickeys on their hands from him."

During the race, the trio sat two rows behind the Matz family, all five crash survivors whooping it up and egging the horse on.

"When he won, it felt very Disney-esque," Radcliffe said.

Interviewed by reporters, Jody Roth was asked if, given the circumstances, he would consider naming his newborn son after the Derby winner.

"Barbaro is a great name but, no, not really," Roth said. "Of course, if he wins the Triple Crown, that might change."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Preakness starters

PP Horse Last start Sandra McKee's comment

1 Like Now Lexington, 2nd Has speed, will use it

2 Platinum Couple Wood, 5th Longest shot in field

3 Hemingway's Key Lexington, 8th Babe Ruth wore No. 3, too

4 Greeley's Legacy Lexington, 4th Has perfect starting spot

5 Brother Derek Ky. Derby, 4th Looks fresh after rough Derby

6 Barbaro Ky. Derby, won Relaxed and ready to run

7 Sweetnorthernsaint Ky. Derby, 7th Knows who target is

8 Bernardini Withers, won Grade I debut, first time two turns

9 Diabolical allowance, won Has learned to relax

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