tampabay.com

Bittersweet memories

Barbaro's trainer returns to Churchill Downs, a reminder of better days.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published November 1, 2006


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Michael Matz is back at Churchill Downs this week, scene of Barbaro's dominating Kentucky Derby victory.

The trainer is working in the same barn area and leading his horse for the Breeders' Cup along the paths where Barbaro walked.

One moment, Matz's voice breaks and tears well in his blue eyes as he talks about Barbaro, whose career ended with a devastating misstep in the Preakness. The Derby winner was supposed to be taking on Bernardini in the $5-million Classic on Saturday, with Horse of the Year honors at stake.

The next, Matz is composed and focused on saddling 4-year-old filly Round Pond in the $2-million Distaff.

"It's nice to be back having such fond memories from before," Matz said Tuesday, ducking inside the barn to escape raindrops. "I just hope we have the same results."

Gretchen Jackson, who with her husband, Roy, owns Barbaro, understands how Matz is emotionally overwhelmed this week.

"He's had a lot of time to think about what happened," she said.

Barbaro remains at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. His once-shattered right leg is nearly healed, while the hoof on his left hind leg, struck by laminitis, is beginning to grow back.

Matz said he, the Jacksons and Dr. Dean Richardson, who has treated the horse from the beginning, soon will decide whether Barbaro can leave the clinic and spend the winter at the Jacksons' Pennsylvania farm.

"You keep your fingers crossed all the time," Matz said. "He's doing good right now."

Confined to his stall for weeks after surgery, Barbaro now goes outside twice a day, and his weight is up to more than 1,100 pounds.

"Obviously, he realizes there's something different about him right now with that cast on his back leg," said Matz, who lives 10 minutes from the clinic. "He doesn't go out and gallop anymore. The other day I took him out. It was windy. I brought him right back in, because he was starting to kick at the leaves."

"We're so lucky. He's doing all right. Life goes on," Jackson told the Associated Press by cell phone as she prepared grass for Barbaro to munch on.

"If you don't look down at those hind legs, you'd say he looks great," she said. "His coat is shiny and glistening. He looks like a very healthy horse aside from his legs."

The public hasn't forgotten Barbaro, either, with apples, carrots and cards piled up at New Bolton Center.

"He brought a lot of people together, that's for sure," Matz said, his voice hesitating.

Barbaro was undefeated going into the Derby. He won by 6½ lengths, the largest margin in 60 years, and was touted as the next Triple Crown champion and first since Affirmed in 1978.

"I thought for sure this horse would win the Triple Crown," Matz said. "When he foundered, I thought, 'They're going to put him down,' but he didn't want any part of it."

The first Saturday in May "seems like it was a long time ago," Matz said. "I never really got a chance to reflect."

Gretchen Jackson's difficult moments come when she and Matz are together at a track to watch a horse run that isn't Barbaro.

"It's a little sad for me," she said.

Most days, though, the Jacksons marvel at their good fortune in winning the Derby.

"It's very exciting for us to think about it," she said.

The couple has fun with the winner's gold trophy, "moving it around the house to see where we like it the best," she said.

Even without Barbaro, the Jacksons have a rooting interest in the Classic. They bred Irish runner George Washington, trained by Aidan O'Brien and owned by Susan Magnier. It will be the colt's first race on dirt and likely the final race of his career.

"It's going to be a real tough race," Gretchen Jackson said.

On the same day Barbaro won America's most famous race, George Washington won the 2,000 Guineas, the English classic for 3-year-old colts.

Barbaro will reunite his human handlers - Matz, the Jacksons, Richardson and jockey Edgar Prado - tonight when they're honored at the National Turf Writers Association awards dinner.

The Jacksons plan to attend, then return home and watch the Breeders' Cup on television.

"Coming back, it'll bring nothing but warm, good happy feelings," Gretchen Jackson said. "Once you've won an important race at a track, you feel like that track is always a part of your life."

Matz has the same feelings, but no answers for why Barbaro's career ended so gruesomely.

"Maybe there's a bigger reason why," he said. "He's definitely done a lot for the sport."