Barbaro: A Triple Crown in the making

May 9, 2006 3:49 AM

The drumbeat began with the ever widening strides of Barbaro as he toyed with 19 soundly beaten 3-year-olds, and it could be heard even over the roar of the 157,536 at Churchill Downs last Saturday.

It was the tom-tom beat of the Triple Crown, as the grist mills began grinding out the arrival of a new equine Messiah, even before he reached the wire.

This time the bleat could be for real. There were shades of Secretariat in Barbaro’s victory, and overnight horseracing has a new national hero.

Expect of course that some people who were ballyhooing this year’s crop of sophomore runners as "the best crop in years" right up to Derby post time, now will pose the question of whether Barbaro is that good, or the rest are that mediocre.

He is that good.

NBC had good story lines to pursue this year, and did a very good job developing them. One’s heart broke as the postrace camera zoomed in on Dan Hendricks, the paraplegic trainer of Brother Derek, sitting distraught in his wheelchair. The suspicion here is that he was as stricken about his young son’s crushing disappointment as his own at the fourth place dead heat of his highly touted charge. He knew better than most that Derby horses do not come every year, and that this golden opportunity had melted away in the heavy traffic of the Derby’s light brigade.

Regardless what happens with Barbaro, racing has a new training star in Michael Matz. He added as much class to the day’s proceedings as Gary Stevens did to the telecast. Both are shining examples of the best thoroughbred racing has to offer, even if Matz has been a thoroughbred trainer for only six years. He has been a superb horseman of course — a three-time Olympic jump rider and a major star in that field — for decades. and he is just what the sport needs with Stevens and Jerry Bailey gone: a handsome, well-groomed, highly intelligent and articulate poster boy.

With no knocks on either Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lucas, it was nice to see a guy with no visible ego in the biggest of all thoroughbred winner’s circles. Low key and self assured, he can be a huge asset for the game. When he said after the Derby that he didn’t need to say much, because the horse had spoken for him, you knew he, like his horse, was the real thing.

Watching Michael Matz with a happy daughter in his arms after his Derby victory, I thought back to the delights of summer four decades gone, in winners’ circles where our son and daughter had the thrill of seeing their horse win stakes.

Racing doesn’t mean too much to them now, but they never will forget the joy of those rare and precious moments. Neither will their mother or father, and of all the treasured pictures on our walls, none evokes the warmth and pride and satisfaction of seeing those joyful kids savoring the first great victories of their lives. They were not their last, but they will never dim for them or us. They were the happy times that horse racing can bring, that it brought last Saturday for the Matz family. Mrs. Matz, like her husband, is no stranger to success. She was a top jump rider herself, conquered thyroid cancer last year, and is the granddaughter of Robert Kleberg, who owned almost half the state of Texas with his King Ranch, home of Assault and Santa Gertrudis cattle. Despite all that, this had to be the high moment of D. D. Matz’s life, as well as that of her hero husband and their four beautiful kids.

Matz said, before the Derby in outlining his move from jumpers to runners, that he felt at first he had gone from up here (raising his arms over his head)- to ankle low, and was a nobody fighting for stalls in 1990. He is back higher than ever now, with all the stalls he wants, and thoroughbred racing should celebrate the arrival of Michael Matz every bit as much as that of his luminous horse.