When Barbaro whipped 12 others in the Laurel Futurity last year, trainer Michael Matz knew he had one of the most talented 2-year-olds in the country. The colt won by eight lengths while receiving a 102 Beyer Figure, just two points slower than the number given to Stevie Wonderboy in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But what Matz still doesn't know is whether or not he has just a good grass horse or a colt with the overall talent to become a major player on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
He won't have to wait long for his answer. One of the most intriguing Kentucky Derby contenders to come around in a long time, Barbaro will make his dirt debut Saturday in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. He could dominate his competition. He could run abysmally. No one really knows.
"He works well on the dirt," Matz said. "I hope he'll run that way."
Matz doesn't have much else to go on.
By Dynaformer, Barbaro has a grass pedigree, so Matz took the expected approach and started the colt off in a grass race last year at Delaware Park on Oct. 4. He won the maiden special weight by 8-1/2 lengths and followed that with his victory in the Laurel Futurity. He kicked off his 3-year-old campaign with an easy win on the grass in the Tropical Park Derby at Calder, where he was ridden for the first time by Edgar Prado.
It became clear that no other East Coast-based 3-year-old could touch Barbaro on the grass, but there's only so much a horse can accomplish at this time of year on the grass. For a 3-year-old, the only place to develop a reputation and earn serious money is on the dirt.
"I just feel that right now we have to try the dirt," Matz said. "We know we have an excellent horse on the turf. I feel for the owner's sake and the horse's sake, we have to try the dirt."
The offspring of Dynaformer are, more often than not, superior turf horses, but Matz is hoping that the dam's side of Barbaro's pedigree will show up in the Holy Bull. His dam, La Ville Rouge, was a versatile stakes quality filly by Carson City who won on the dirt and turf. Her only other foal to race, a 4-year-old by Saint Ballado, has also won on the turf and dirt. Named Holy Ground, his biggest dirt victory came in the $56,000 Stanton Stakes, which he won last year at Delaware Park.
"All indications say that you have to try this," Matz said. "And the timing is right. If he doesn't run well and can't compete with these type of horses then we won't try the dirt again. I already know he can compete with anything on the turf."
Should Barbaro continue down the trail to the Kentucky Derby, Matz, himself, will be one of the more interesting stories of the spring. Before becoming involved in thoroughbred racing, Matz, 55, was an accomplished equestrians.
Matz appeared in his first Olympics in 1976, beginning a 24-year run as one of this country's most successful equestrians. By the time he retired just before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, he had compiled a resume packed with highlights and accomplishments. He was awarded the United States Equestrian Team Show Jumping Championship Trophy an unprecedented six times, appeared in three Olympics and four Pan Am games.
In 1989, he made news for a very different reason. Matz was aboard United Airlines Flight 232 en route from Denver to Chicago when it crashed while trying to make an emergency landing at the Sioux City, Iowa airport. A total of 112 people were killed, while 184 survived. Because Matz helped save two small children, he was named "Man of the Week" by ABC News.
Less than two weeks later, he competed in the USET Show Jumping Championship. For the next seven years, he was still among the best in his field, but was already contemplating a future beyond show jumping. He knew he couldn't stay at the top forever.
"They call it aging," he said. "I didn't want to get stuck standing in the middle of a show ring teaching lessons the rest of my life."
So in 1996, the same year he earned a silver medal in the Olympics, he set up shop as a trainer. Since, his stable has improved steadily. In 1997, his first full year as a trainer, Matz won just five races, none of them stakes. He has now built a solid stable with a number of talented horse. Matz won 52 races last year, six of them stakes. A year earlier, he won the Arlington Million with Kickin Kris.
Still, he remains better know in in the show jumping world than around the racetrack. With Barbaro, that may be about to change. That is if he can run on the dirt.