Barbaro's unflappable trainer is in for one wild ride
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Michael Matz emerged from the Churchill Downs grandstand and walked onto the Kentucky dirt his colt, Barbaro, had just scorched. Around him the tumult of the event still reverberated, but Matz looked like a man walking into church, not the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.
His blue-and-white tie was perfectly knotted, his hair in place, his demeanor little different than it had been all week leading up to the race. He held the hands of two of his children, quietly and gracefully accepting congratulations. A wide, white smile was Matz's only visible sign of elation.
Think Tom Osborne in victory, not Jim Valvano. That's Michael Matz.
There clearly is nothing too jarring for this man -- not tragedy, not triumph, not international competition, not 157,536 julep-stewed race fans. His splendid colt is undefeated, and so is his composure. He is a model of overachievement and understatement.
Matz has played a heroic role in a deadly plane crash, carried the American flag in the Olympics, stood on a medals stand and now won the Kentucky Derby in his first try as a thoroughbred trainer. He's performed each pressurized feat with an almost unnatural equipoise.
"I just couldn't be more pleased," Matz said, largely submerging that pleasure beneath his eternally calm exterior.
A question for Matz's friend of 40 years, Billy Glass: Will his buttoned-down buddy channel the Derby decadence and cut loose Saturday night?
"No," Glass said, smiling. "He can drink a 12-pack of Heineken and not even waver, but his idea of fun is being with his family."
That family extends to include the three siblings who sat in box seats at Churchill on Saturday, nearly 17 years after Matz helped them through a horrific experience in a Sioux City, Iowa, cornfield. Jody and Travis Roth and their sister, Melissa Radcliff, were passengers on United Airlines Flight 232 when it crash-landed, en route from Denver to Chicago. Of the 296 passengers on board, 112 died.
Those three were kids at the time. They were aided by the kindness and courage of a stranger who was sitting by them on the plane -- Michael Matz, then 38 and a world-renowned equestrian rider.
Matz and his then-girlfriend-now-wife D.D. reunited the three kids outside the wreckage of the plane and shielded them from the carnage of the scene. They took care of the kids for 12 hours after the accident, until their mother arrived.
The most vivid example of Matz's composure in a truly terrifying moment was the fact that he played cards with Travis, then 9, to keep him calm after the pilots were warning the cabin of a rough landing.
Saturday they were guests of Churchill Downs, here to watch Matz add another remarkable line to his curriculum vitae. Prior to a backside visit Saturday to Barbaro's barn they hadn't seen him since 1996, when they were attendees at a function to celebrate Matz's silver medal and flag bearing in the closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics, but they keep in touch.
Reliving that ordeal is not something the trainer enjoys.
During the buildup to this race, Matz politely but firmly deflected questions about the plane crash.
"You know what, that's old," he said a week before on the Churchill backside.
"I think that's something he'd rather put behind him," said his friend, Glass. "... His claim to fame today has nothing to do with a plane crash."
He had no claim to fame when Glass met him, back in the 1960s. Glass was grooming horses at a high-end show-jumping stable in Ohio when Matz was trying to break into the equestrian riding business.
"I remember him when he was a hunter rider, and wasn't even very good at it," Glass said with a laugh.
His riding improved, to the point that Glass asserts Matz was the best show rider in the world in the early 1980s. His personality and character have remained constant, ever since Glass watched Matz hustle exercise rides in the mornings at Thistledown Race Track in Cleveland, decades ago.
"I knew Michael when he was poor," Glass said, "when he was just a kid that liked horses. His success comes from an incredible work ethic and an uncompromising quality to everything he does. ... He's not a [BS'er], not a conniver, not a cheater. ...
"He is the most anal, stubborn, believes-in-what-he-champions individual you'll ever meet. There is no compromise in the guy. Never has been, never will be. He is a workaholic, believes in what he does. He's painfully honest. If you don't want to know what he thinks, don't ask him."
Matz told everyone what he thought of the conventional wisdom of how you bring a 3-year-old up to the Kentucky Derby. Many longtime Derby watchers -- including me -- clucked at the light racing Barbaro had heading into this grueling test, and Matz couldn't care less.
Barbaro's only race in the previous 13 weeks was the Florida Derby. Last time a horse went five or more weeks without a race leading into the Kentucky Derby and won was 50 years ago. The question was whether Barbaro had been sufficiently seasoned and conditioned.
Matz was a bit prickly whenever the subject came up in the last week. After Barbaro blew away the field by 6½ lengths, largest margin of victory in this race in 60 years, he could have crowed long and loud. He characteristically refused.
"It speaks for itself," Matz said of Barbaro's training. "I don't have to say anything."
Now a new challenge awaits Barbaro. After spacing all six of his career races at least five weeks apart, the Preakness now beckons on May 20. Matz did say that if Barbaro comes out of the race in good order over the next few days, he's likely for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
"God willing," Matz said, "he is the next Triple Crown winner."
Thirty-three years ago, Matz and Glass traveled to Belmont to see the greatest moment in Triple Crown history, Secretariat's epic 31-length charge into history.
"That might be slightly ahead of Barbaro," Glass said, smiling. "But it's close."
Should Barbaro follow Secretariat into racing immortality -- and that's an extra-large if, no matter how good the horse has looked thus far in his career -- it will be a towering test of Michael Matz's unbreakable poise.
But don't bet against him.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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