For trainer, memories of Barbaro aren't fading

Matz has another Ky. Derby hopeful

March 30, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- As trainer Michael Matz rides his pony to the track on a warm, early morning at the Palm Meadows training center, the memories of the late Barbaro ride along with him.

The Florida Derby is where Barbaro stamped his ticket for last year's Kentucky Derby and set in motion a string of events that would carry him to the largest margin of victory in the race in 60 years.

And this is where the media crowd began to descend on the trainer, whose previous claims to fame had been the rescue of three children from a deadly plane crash and an Olympic silver medal in show jumping.

Yesterday, though the media crowd was a little smaller and though he has Chelokee entered in tomorrow's Florida Derby, many of the questions were still about Barbaro.

And Matz acknowledged the horse is never far from his mind.

"I'm never going to be over him," Matz said of Barbaro, who was euthanized Jan. 29 because of laminitis, a complication developed after shattering his right hind leg in the Preakness. "It's a good memory and I'll always have it, but I can't live in the past."

And yet the past doesn't go away.

"When you've had a horse like that and seen what he has done, it's hard not to compare," he said. "It's only human nature to do that, but it's unfair to any horse."

By the time Barbaro reached the Florida Derby, he had four impressive wins -- though several were on grass. In Chelokee (pronounced chuh-low-kee), Matz has a young, developing horse with a great disposition.

Chelokee is quite different from Barbaro, said assistant trainer Peter Brett, who rode Barbaro every day he was in training and visited him three times a week when he was hospitalized for eight months at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

"Barbaro made everything easy," Brett said. "It's silly, really, how easy it was. And here, the memories are all around us and yet we won't even realize just how close they are until we walk [Chelokee] over for the race.

"With Barbaro, we never once had to do anything twice. Every time we raised the bar, he met or exceeded it. Even at the Preakness, he knew what he was there to do. Barbaro was a horse of a lifetime. I may never see or work or ride a horse like that again. The odds of doing it are pretty far off. You know I ride Chelokee and I ride Round Pond regularly and there is no comparison and it's ridiculous. Round Pond is a Breeders' Cup champion, but it is what it is."

Matz said he has come to terms with Barbaro's loss, "because I don't think you can do anything else. Digging at it isn't going to change anything."

It's not up to Matz, but he said when Barbaro's owner, Gretchen Jackson, asked his opinion of where Barbaro should be buried, he told her to be selfish. "They have a beautiful lake with a lot of trees right on their farm. I'd be selfish. That's where I'd put him."

When asked if he would have changed anything in his handling of Barbaro, he nods yes. He might have handled the horse differently after he was injured. He said Barbaro's surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, might have done some things differently, too, though he did not elaborate on anything specific.

But as far as what went on in the Preakness, Matz sounds firm in his belief that there was nothing anyone could have done to change the events of that day.

"It was simply the closing of the door on the horse beside him -- he'd never been in that spot before -- and when he heard that door bang closed, he thought that was the bell to go," Matz said, referring to Barbaro's false start in the race. "It was just one of those things, and, in the end, it just wasn't supposed to be that day. It's always easy to look back and second-guess, but it is never going to change anything."

But he does look back to the Kentucky Derby as having been something special just as it was, even before anyone knew what would happen to Barbaro.

"It was an unusual situation," he said. "Did the following events make it more special, more dramatic, more unusual? How many times does something like what happened to the Kentucky Derby winner?"

In the end, perhaps, what he saw was satisfying, the way the public responded with an outpouring of love and kindness. The way the horse seemed to touch people fighting their own illnesses and the way his situation inspired donations that might, sometime in the future, help other horses with injuries and deadly inflammations like laminitis.

Matz, who had been standing in his barn, walked to his car and retrieved a large brown envelope from Namibia, from a child named Mateo, an orphan with AIDS. "He knew about Barbaro and that I used to ride jumpers," Matz said. "He ... wants to be a jumper. This little boy has written to us three times. My wife has written to him ... telling him we have six children who jump. And we've heard from one of his teachers that he takes our letters and sleeps with them."

Matz paused.

"I hope something good will come out of this [the loss of Barbaro]," he said. "You've seen the support. The money raised for research. Everything. It's unbelievable."

But now there is Chelokee, a young 3-year-old foaled in late May, whose one chance to show he is Kentucky Derby worthy comes tomorrow.

"I feel he's a horse who is improving," Matz said of the son of Cherokee Run. "He just has to prove that he has improved enough to belong in Derby company. This year, it's up to one race. This race. We'll see."

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