Barbaro is a very nice horse, maybe even a Triple Crown horse. He dominated the Kentucky Derby, winning by 6 1/2 lengths, something that was never supposed to happen with such a deep and competitive field of 20. He was a big star Saturday at Churchill Downs, but not the only star.
Michael Matz had never so much as appeared in a Triple Crown race before yesterday, his real fame having come from his exploits as a show rider and the heroics he performed when a DC-10 crashed into an Iowa cornfield and he had the presence of mind to help rescue a trio of children. He was a Derby rookie and many observers were convinced he was training like one.
He had willingly broken one of the Kentucky Derby's most sacred rules: thou shalt run a horse within four weeks of the race.
Every Derby winning trainer since 1956 had taken the same, conventional route to the race. Their horses had had a prep within a month of the race and they had brought seasoned, toughened horses to the Derby, ones who were ready for America's most grueling horse race. Worse yet, Matz had raced Barbaro only twice since Feb. 4.
Matz believed he would bring a fresh horse to the Kentucky Derby, one who hadn't peaked too early and one who would still have something left when it came to the Preakness and, perhaps, the Belmont. Many others, this pundit included, were convinced Matz hadn't done enough, and his horse underprepared horse would surely fall short. He was right. We were wrong.
"Maybe somebody would tell me what this worry about the five weeks is all about," Matz said yesterday, not for the first time. "Every horseman I talked to was fine with it. The only people that made a big deal about it was the press. I don't know where it came from. Me, personally, I think it's a moot point."
It may sound as if he were gloating, but he was not. That's not his style. Asked if he wanted to tell everyone, "I told you so," Matz replied: "No, I'm not going to say a word."
He didn't need to. The results spoke for themselves. This was a one-horse race to the wire. Matz could have listened to the critics and picked a different Kentucky Derby prep than the April 1 Florida Derby, a race Gulfstream management rescheduled for five weeks before the Derby only last year. He could have fretted over the fact that the one-two starters in last year's Florida Derby ran dismally in the Kentucky Derby. Instead, he never doubted his instincts or second-guessed himself.
Perhaps he did take a risk, but it worked. And now he has a horse that demolished 19 others in the biggest race in America, looks like he has no serious rivals in his division and probably has plenty left in the tank for the Preakness. We've all seen how difficult it is to win the Triple Crown, but Matz has put Barbaro in the best position imaginable to get the job done. A trainer can't possibly do anything more.
"(Coming back in) two weeks (for the Preakness) for any horse is probably coming back quick, let alone one that won the Kentucky Derby," Matz said. "That was the reason we gave him eight weeks off (between the Holy Bull and Florida Derby). Now, we're going to bring him back, hopefully, in two weeks. If we made a mistake we'll know it in two weeks. But if it works, it will show that's what we were trying to do."
Strange things happen in this sport, but it's hard to imagine this horse getting beat in the Preakness. He was that dominant Saturday, that much better than his competition and no one among the 19 also-rans had any serious excuses.
"I've got the feeling we might have a Triple Crown winner this year," winning jockey Edgar Prado said. "That's why I was so happy."
Or maybe he will get beat at Pimlico. If so, it won't be Matz's fault. The fourth straight rookie trainer to win the Derby, he did everything right and had complete faith in his horse and himself. Barbaro took care of the rest. He ran great. His trainer did a great job. The combination proved unbeatable.