FRONTLINE: Barbaro Trainer Michael Matz

After the Fall
Following a year of dream runs and shattered potential, Barbaro’s trainer moves on.

After the Fall
Following a year of dream runs and shattered potential, Barbaro’s trainer moves on.

Just hours before the May 5 running of the Kentucky Derby, Michael Matz isn’t at Churchill Downs. Rather, the celebrated trainer is back at work at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. Hardly plebeian, it’s one of North America’s premier thoroughbred facilities, situated on 350 acres of beautiful countryside adjoining the 5,600-acre Fair Hill Preserve—formerly the foxhunting estate of William du Pont Jr.

Even so, it’s still not Churchill Downs. A week removed from an off-season in Florida, Matz has responsibilities in his two barns and 50-plus stalls that preclude the Derby. His Run for the Roses was last year, when Barbaro, then a 3-year-old bay colt, romped to a 6 1/2-length victory in front of 157,536 people in Louisville.

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Now it’s the stuff of both legend and heartbreak—especially for Matz and Barbaro’s owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson of West Grove. Under Matz’s care, Barbaro, who’d never been beaten, also won the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and was the odds-on favorite in the Preakness. There, at Pimlico last May 22, Barbaro suffered a catastrophic leg injury, ending his Triple Crown hopes.

“Barbaro was so good, but we didn’t know how good or how far he’d keep going,” Matz says now. “He turned out to be a super horse, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

Rushed in an equine ambulance to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, surgeon Dean Richardson operated for six hours on Barbaro, who had fractured his right hind leg in three places. In all, 27 titanium screws and a 16-hole steel stabilization plate were inserted.

More than the saddest of Chester County horse stories, Barbaro’s tragedy and months of valiant recovery captured the nation’s hearts. But when severe laminitis developed in both his front hooves and his left hind leg, opposite the one he shattered, the Jacksons euthanized him on Jan. 29.

“It was a difficult year,” Matz concludes. “One minute you have the best 3-year-old in the country in your barn, and the next minute you’re trying to save him. The sport can be cruel sometimes.”

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Like the Jacksons, Matz doesn’t talk about Barbaro’s fall. “No one knows [what happened],” he says. “Some say [jockey] Edgar [Prado] was hit, but he never felt a hit. It was something that just wasn’t supposed to be. Now I feel like it happened a long time ago. I’d rather look at the good Barbaro did for everybody and go on.”

Matz, 56, was still in Florida the month Barbaro was put down. The Jacksons called and told him they’d wait until he flew up to see his champion one last time. But Matz asked them to do what was best for Barbaro.

“I didn’t like seeing him that way anyway,” he admits. “We hoped he’d be saved. There was no other hope—just that he be saved and have a good quality of life.”

For Matz, this past year began and ended ominously. His wife, D.D. Alexander, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in mid-December 2005. While he prepped Barbaro to run, D.D. raced for a cure. Since then, she’s had successful surgery.

The two have had their share of scares, though. On July 19, 1989, D.D. and Matz, a three-time U.S. Olympic equestrian rider before he retired to become a trainer, were passengers on United Airlines Flight 232, which crash-landed in a cornfield near Sioux City, Iowa. In all, 111 passengers died, but Matz led three siblings flying without their parents to safety before returning to the burning wreckage to rescue an 11-month-old girl. Matz was named “Person of the Week” by ABC News, and the siblings he saved were his guests at last year’s Kentucky Derby. It was actually part of the TV coverage—but when Barbaro won so convincingly, the horse naturally took center-stage.

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MICHAEL MATZ WAS BORN in Shillington, Berks County. His father was a plumber, and Matz grew up helping him. On weekends, he started doing ground maintenance for a neighbor who owned horses. One day, the man asked Matz if he knew how to ride.

“Oh sure,” Matz recalls answering, though he’d never been on a horse. “I was just trying to keep my job.”

By high school graduation, he’d continued his riding and began working as a groom on a farm in Mechanicsville, near New Hope. After a year, he was employed at a barn in West Chester, where he could do more riding. Eventually, he took a pure riding job in Ohio.

Matz has never seemed to be overly impressed with himself at any point in his diverse career. “Taking care of horses is taking care of horses,” he says. “Like any animal you spend time around, you build a fundamental relationship. When all goes well, you feel very fulfilled. When it doesn’t, it’s humbling.”

Matz began competing as a show jumper in Europe in 1973. Three years later, he made the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team for the 1976 Games in Montreal. He was on the team again in 1992 and 1996. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, he won a silver medal in the team event and carried the American flag at the closing ceremonies.

Matz also won individual and team bronze medals in the 1978 World Eques-trian Championships. A two-time winner of the American Grand Prix Association’s Rider of the Year (1981 and 1984), he earned four gold and four bronze medals at the Pan American Games. He was a six-time U.S. national champion and came in first in at least one major show-jumping event for 20 consecutive years, retiring as the leading money-winner in the sport’s history, with more than $1.7 million.

“Physically, I was riding OK,” says Matz, who on April 1, 2006, was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. “But mentally, I wasn’t putting all I could into it. With racing, it gave me a new challenge.”

Matz started training part-time in 1998 with a three-horse stable. After he didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2000 Games in Sydney, he recorded his first Grade 1 victories with Kicken Kris, who captured the 2003 Secretariat Stakes and the 2004 Arlington Million (via disqualification).

In addition to Fair Hill, Matz has 21 stalls at Delaware Park. He employs a staff of 30. The first week of May, he took in 25 2-year-olds. The expectation, of course, is that in a year’s time he’ll convert each into another Barbaro—if that’s possible.

“It’d be nice if it was that easy,” he says. “If I can take them, I do.”

But there simply isn’t enough room for all of the horses he’s offered.

It’s crowded at home, too. Matz has daughters Michelle, 25, and Lucy, 8, and sons Michael Jr., 23, Alex, 10, Robert, 7, and Arthur, 4. (The oldest are from a previous marriage.) Michelle once rode competitively; Michael Jr. remains a professional polo player.

There are horses at home, but Michael says D.D.’s in charge on their 300-acre Coatesville farm, which was in her family. D.D. has deep roots in thoroughbred racing. She’s the daughter of breeder Helen Kleberg Groves and the granddaughter of Robert Kleberg, who owned King Ranch in Texas and raced 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault and 1950 Kentucky Derby winner Middleground.

D.D.’s sister, Helen Alexander, owns Middlebrook Farm in Lexington, Ky.

D.D., meanwhile, was the proud owner of Atelier, who ran fourth in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Other stakes winners trained by Matz include Aunt Henny, Political Attack, Round Pond and Bowman’s Band. Round Pond took the 2006 Breeder’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs, and Street Sounds captured the 2007 Grade II Stonerside Beaumont Stakes. “I’m pretty lucky to have had the horses I’ve had,” Matz says. “A good horse makes a good rider, and a good horse makes a good trainer.”

Matz’s best bet these days is Chelokee, who, fittingly enough, won the inaugural Barbaro Stakes at this year’s Preakness. Then there are Barbaro’s two full brothers, a yearling named Nicanor and a yet-unnamed foal born this spring.

No horse, however, ever drew the gratitude Barbaro did.

“He gave so much, so people wanted to do the same for him,” Matz says. “He gave everything he had. He was all anyone could have asked for from a horse, an athlete or a person. He was a delight to train. He loved to run, had the will to win and the heart to win. He was a fighter.”

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