The questioning started even before Roy and Gretchen Jackson's Barbaro entered the cherished Churchill Downs winner's circle following his effortless, 6 1/2-length romp in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
"Can Barbaro win the Triple Crown?"
The only logical answer, it seems to me, is: "He's the only one with a chance."
Barbaro has so many things in his favor, it's hard to bet against him. He has "overcome" a five-week layoff, avoided traffic problems in the Derby's 20-horse field, and struck fear in the minds of several trainers of also-rans. The son of Dynaformer has tractable early speed, a stayer's pedigree, and a competitive fire that has led to six consecutive victories without defeat.
Bob Baffert, with three starters in this year's Derby, took one look at the muscular, well-balanced colt in the Churchill Downs paddock before the race and said to Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz: "I sure hope your horse is a turf horse, because if he isn't, we're all in trouble."
Barbaro proved in his first three starts that he is an exceptional turf horse, winning a maiden race at Delaware Park by 8 1/2 lengths, the Laurel Futurity by eight, and the Tropical Park Derby (gr. IIIT) at Calder by 3 3/4 lengths. Matz began dropping hints as early as Nov. 19, when Barbaro won the Laurel Futurity, that he had more, much more, than a grass runner on his hands.
"This horse makes me shiver when I see him work on the dirt," Matz said.
Racing is littered with good grass horses who worked well on the dirt but raced poorly over the surface. That hasn't been the case with Barbaro.
Five weeks after his easy Tropical Park Derby win Jan. 1, Barbaro negotiated a sloppy dirt track at Gulfstream Park, winning the 1 1/8-mile Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) by three-quarters of a length. Jockey Edgar Prado had wrapped up on Barbaro in the final sixteenth of a mile, making the margin of victory somewhat deceiving.
Matz gave Barbaro eight weeks off before the April 1 Florida Derby (gr. I), run at the same nine-furlong distance but on a fast main track. Barbaro appeared to work harder for this victory, defeating stubborn front-runner Sharp Humor by a half-length and feeling the sting of Prado's whip at least five times in the run to the wire. Even with that, Prado said his mount "wasn't all out to win the race. He was doing it easily."
There was a method to what some media critics saw as madness in the scheduling of Barbaro's races. By giving his colt eight weeks between the Holy Bull and Florida Derby and another five weeks from there until the Kentucky Derby, Matz would bring a fresh horse to the Triple Crown battle, a pressure-cooker of three demanding races over a five-week period. No horse has won all three since Affirmed in 1978, and Matz is fully aware that 10 Kentucky Derby/Preakness (gr. I) winners since have fallen short in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Sometime last fall, Matz began strategizing like a chess grandmaster, thinking several moves ahead with Barbaro. His endgame wasn't the Florida Derby and it wasn't the Kentucky Derby or Preakness. It was June 10, the day of the 138th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. When his plan for a light campaign of prep races was criticized in the press, Matz didn't understand all the fuss. He knew his horse.
If Barbaro can safely pass his next test, in the 131st running of the Preakness May 20, Matz' strategy will have worked to perfection. It will then be up to Barbaro to prove his place in the annals of the Turf come Belmont day.
I think we all might get shivers watching him run that afternoon.