Steve Haskin's Derby Analysis: The Crown Awaits

Steve Haskin's Derby Analysis: The Crown Awaits
Photo: Jeffrey Snyder
Can Barbaro duplicate his Derby win in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes?
Back in January, before Barbaro had ever run on the dirt, Michael Matz was asked if he knew where the name Barbaro came from. He called to assistant trainer Peter Brette: "Hey, Peter, what does the name Barbaro mean?" Brette didn't hesitate with his answer: "Kentucky Derby winner."

"In our dreams, right?" Matz replied.

The crossover from dream to reality, while most times an untraversable chasm, can in rare cases be attained by something as simple as clicking the heels of a pair of ruby slippers.

In Matz' case, it was the simplicity of his conviction and training skills, and knowing his horse that enabled him to bridge that chasm, and history be damned.

Five Weeks? How many horses have had to go five weeks to the Derby, he kept asking? Surely not enough to form an historical trend, he insisted. One race in 13 weeks? Long breaks between races worked every time for Barbaro, and the horse has never been beaten, so, what's the big deal?

But, this is the Derby. Everyone knows it's not like other races, the historians claimed. You need a tough, battle-tested horse to win the Derby. Well, not any more.

Matz had the audacity to commit a sacrilegious act. He ripped out an entire chapter in the trainers' bible on preparing a horse for the Kentucky Derby and wrote his own scripture.And you can be sure from now on, the "Matz Method" will be employed by trainers all over the country. It's just the nature of the beast.

So, we can finally let Needles slip quietly back into history on the 50th anniversary of his winning the Derby off a six-week layoff. The Florida-bred's name no longer will bring terror to those seeking to win the Derby off a layoff of five weeks or more.

But, in the long run, the 2006 Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) was about the performance of Barbaro; without a doubt one of the most impressive in Derby history. So devastating was the son of Dynaformer, everyone now is looking beyond the Preakness (gr. I) to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). And why not? Not only did Barbaro totally dominate his opponents, he closed his last quarter in a blistering :24 1/5.

As Barbaro kicked for home and left a deep, talented Derby field in his wake, somehow the "high grass action" knock that has stuck to him like a barnacle to the hull of a ship, didn't seem quite as "high" and "grassy" as it did before the race. Now, his front legs looked more like pistons driving into the ground, propelling him to the biggest winning margin in the Derby since Assault 60 years ago. Ironically, Matz' wife, D.D., is the granddaughter of Assault's owner and breeder, Robert Kleberg.

It was D.D. who was in a dream-like state after the race, as if unable to believe that the exultation around her and in the stands was real. "I'm still shaking," she said. "This is like a storybook. I feel like I'm in a dream and I'm walking through a fog. I can't express how I feel for Michael, because he puts every waking moment into his work. He doesn't do it for any reason other than his love for the horses."

If Barbaro does get by the Preakness, and does it without winning by a pole, as Funny Cide and Smarty Jones foolishly did, then they can start polishing off the Triple Crown trophy, which will be heading to West Grove, Pa., home of the colt's owners and breeders, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who reside at their Lael Farm, and Fair Hill, Md., where Matz stables most of the year.

Barbaro is the third straight mid-Atlantic monster, following in the footsteps of Philadelphia's Smarty Jones, and the Delaware Park-spawned Afleet Alex, who, like Smarty and Barbaro, was owned by Philadelphia area residents.

A Belmont victory by Barbaro appears to be the consensus opinion already, and there isn't a single reason not to think that way. No Derby and Preakness winner in memory will have gone into the Test of the Champion with more credentials.

Barbaro has the pedigree to go a mile and a half. He has tactical speed, which is normally needed at Belmont Park. He can rate kindly behind any type of pace, something the last three Derby-Preakness winners were unable to do. And perhaps most important, he has the perfect stride to handle Belmont's big, sweeping turns going a mile and a half. Other horses who used their long, powerful stride to win the Belmont were Secretariat, Easy Goer, Risen Star, and Point Given. It was that stride that enabled them to win by 31, eight, 14 3/4, and 12 lengths, respectively. But, it is important to remember that none of those horses won the Preakness by more than 2 1/2 lengths, and Easy Goer didn't even win it. The belief here is that if Barbaro wins the Preakness and does it the right way, he will win the Belmont in a procession.

And he has one other thing going for him. He doesn't have that cursed Visa $5-million bonus going against him. Now that Visa has taken a powder on racing and finally hacked that jumbo check to smithereens, the ghost of Spend a Buck can rest in peace and the Triple Crown can once again return to its former state of purity.

Also, the Belmont Stakes this year returns to ABC, the last network to televise a Triple Crown winner.

But Barbaro still has to get past the Preakness, and there is one small question regarding the colt in the second jewel of the Triple Crown that likely will have no bearing on his performance. But it still is worth noting that his previous intervals between races have been six weeks, six weeks, five weeks, eight weeks, and five weeks. Coming back in two weeks, and off a monster performance, is a major departure from what he's used to.

With all the accolades pouring down on Barbaro, and deservedly so, let's not forget the gallant effort turned in by Brother Derek, who actually gained in stature with his performance, at least in these eyes. Despite breaking from post 18, going five-wide into the first turn, and losing a shoe somewhere along the way, he still was able to get in fairly decent position once the field strung out down the backstretch.

But just as he was beginning his move, the field bunched up and he was hung out to dry. He put in a good run on the far turn, but when Seaside Retreat drifted out into Lawyer Ron, who in turn forced Brother Derek farther out, the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner found himself nine-wide at the top of the stretch with some 15 horses in front of him.

Normally, when a speed horse is taken that much out of his game, he throws in the towel. But Brother Derek shrugged it off and suddenly turned into a late closer. It had to be one of the most dramatic adjustments any horse has made in a Triple Crown race, or any race for that matter. Brother Derek closed steadily and relentlessly, while well out in the middle of the track, and finished in a dead-heat for fourth, beaten one length for third and three lengths for second.

The horse he dead-heated with, Jazil, had a clean trip from the back of the pack, and actually was a length in front of Brother Derek at the eighth pole. If anyone had said before the race that Brother Derek would be behind arguably the strongest closer in the field and make up ground on him in the final furlong, you would have laughed in their face.

Although Barbaro will be a strong favorite in the Preakness, don't be surprised to see a good deal of money come in on Brother Derek. Bettors love speed horses in the Preakness who had a troubled trip in the Derby. And this was as troubled a trip for a horse with Brother Derek's running style as you're likely to see.

Some other Derby observations: Credit Todd Pletcher for getting a super performance out of Bluegrass Cat, whose stock had plummeted after his defeats in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) and especially the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). It was good to see the son of Storm Cat return to his form of last fall and early winter.

Sending Showing Up to the Derby with only three career starts, and never having been farther than 1 1/16 miles seemed totally out of character for the conservative Barclay Tagg, but he was right when he said this was an exceptional horse. For Showing Up to run with Barbaro most of the way, right behind the pace, and still be battling for third in deep stretch was impressive, and justified Tagg's high opinion of him. He will be a major force in the 3-year-old division.

I've been trying unsuccessfully to come up with a word to describe Mike Smith's ride on Flashy Bull. It wasn't a bad ride as much as it was weird, bizarre, strange, and unprecedented. Watching the replay, one can almost envision Flashy Bull thinking to himself both times past the stands: "Where the heck am I?" Why am I out here all by myself when all those other horses are way over there?" The chart footnotes should have read: "Took the ambulance path," because the only moving object ever seen in a horse race that far removed from the action is the ambulance.

Speaking of rides, Sweetnorthernsaint's trainer, Michael Trombetta, told Kent Desormeaux to keep off the rail after being informed by someone in the know that the rail was dead and the worst place to be, which one could ascertain by watching the winners of the previous races coming from the four- and five-path. Desormeaux had an opportunity down the backstretch to go outside Lawyer Ron and Brother Derek or inside, and chose the latter, which on some occasions could have turned out to be the right decision.

But speed usually backs up in your face down on the inside, as it did on Saturday, and Sweetnorthernsaint had to do some rail-skimming and tight squeezing to avoid the rapidly retreating Keyed Entry and Sinister Minister. He did loom boldly going into the far turn, but eventually, the deep rail and his efforts squeezing inside horses and avoiding traffic took their toll. This is a much better horse than we saw on Saturday. Desormeaux is capable of great things on any given day, and Trombetta will stick with him in the Preakness.

Getting back to Barbaro, the day before the Derby, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who also own Showing Up, stood at the rail waiting to see their two unbeaten stars out on the track. Just as Showing Up was going off, Barbaro, with Matz aboard the pony, came walking on.

"This will never ever happen again, so you have to enjoy it," Roy Jackson said. "You have to pinch yourself; is this really real?"

As they soaked up the cool, clear Kentucky morning, Barbaro, on the muscle as usual and throwing his head up and down, came cantering by at a strong clip following another powerful gallop. Matz, trying to keep up, said as he quickly passed by, "The hardest part is getting him off the track."

Barbaro had been touting himself with his phenomenal work and powerful gallops. As stated in Friday's analysis: "There have been several horses who have been training well and doing all the right things, and then there is Barbaro. Although the one race in 13 weeks is still somewhat of a concern, as is the likely scenario of the race, it is safe to say that no one has stood out, in his looks and training, more than the son of Dynaformer. Each day, he seems to be getting stronger and sharper. Between his six-furlong work (or four furlongs depending on how you look at it), his gallops, and his overall physical condition, he looks like a horse who is ready to run the race of his life."

A lot of good that did. Yes, the lack of racing was admittedly a concern, and having been burned by late shippers in two of the last three years, it was decided to use a handicapping angle for my final pick instead of the normal observational selection. Of course, I got burned again. But, it's the Derby, and you have to be prepared to get scalded more often than not.

Finally, we come to the terrific story lines of this year's Derby, all of which have been well chronicled. There was Matz' heroics following a horrific 1989 plane crash that claimed 112 lives and became the subject of a made-for-TV movie. By leading three children through the smoky inferno and caring for them afterward and returning to the plane to rescue an 11-month-old baby, Matz was named ABC-TV's "Person of the Week."

As the Derby grew near, Matz' story and his heroics appeared in publications all over the country, despite his reluctance to talk about it. He is uncomfortable with his hero label, feeling the incident was in the past and he has moved on with his life, building a family and becoming a top-class horseman in two sports. Whenever the word hero is mentioned, the humble Matz insists it was the pilot who was the true hero, having to make a miraculous crash landing after the plane lost its hydraulics.

One of the three youngsters Matz led to safety was Melissa Radcliffe, then age 12, who was flying with her brothers, Jody and Travis, to visit their grandmother. All three attended the Derby to root on Matz. In another irony, Radcliffe, now 29 and the mother of two, married the nephew of John Hamilton, a former director for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association who currently works at Three Chimneys Farm, where Barbaro's sire stands.

When asked if the crash changed his life, Matz flashed his infectious smile and said, "Any time you're in a plane that's landing at 200 miles an hour it changes your life. It was something that happened 17 years ago; we were lucky we survived, and you just try to go on."

Rivaling Matz's story in this year's Frank Capra-like Derby script, was the motor cross accident that left Brother Derek's trainer, Dan Hendricks, paralyzed from the waste down, and how the colt helped bring him back from a state of depression. Adding to this story was the fractured vertebra suffered by Brother Derek's jockey, Alex Solis, 16 days after Hendricks' accident and their long road back to the racetrack.

And there was Brother Derek himself, whose journey to Derby morning line favoritism began at Gavel Ranch in southern Oregon and continued at the Salt Lake County Equestrian Center in South Jordan, Utah, where he had to contend with sub-zero-degree mornings and weaving his way through and around herds of cattle and performing barrel and dressage horses.

There was Lawyer Ron's owner, James T. Hines, Jr., who drowned in his indoor swimming pool four days before the colt's victory in the Southwest Stakes and the subsequent sale of majority interest a day before the Derby. In addition, Lawyer Ron's trainer, Bob Holthus, nearly died a week after last year's Derby after suffering congestive heart failure.

Finally, there was the death of Point Determined's owner Bob Lewis, one of the most beloved figures in the Sport of Kings for the past 10 years. Stricken with heart and kidney problems, Lewis, who with his wife, Beverly, owned Kentucky Derby winners Silver Charm and Charismatic, passed away the same day Point Determined won an allowance race at Golden Gate.

"After coming home from the hospice, Dad whispered in my ear, "I want to die," his daughter Nancy said. "He knew he was near death and didn't want to linger and be a burden any longer. The last couple of days I think he was going through his life in his mind. Thankfully, he went peacefully."

What also made this year's Derby unusual was the background of many of the leading contenders. Brother Derek had finished third, beaten 8 1/2 lengths, in a six-furlong stakes for California-breds. Lawyer Ron had finished second in a $50,000 claiming race at Turfway Park. Barbaro had broken his maiden in a one-mile grass race at Delaware Park

Illinois Derby (gr. II) winner Sweetnorthernsaint had been disqualified from first in a $40,000 maiden claiming race at Laurel. Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) winner Sinister Minister had broken his maiden in a $62,500 claiming race at Santa Anita. And Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) winner Deputy Glitters had broken his maiden in a $65,000 claiming race at Saratoga. Times indeed have changed.

Now, the attention turns to the Preakness. Hendricks realizes this likely will be the only chance he has to prevent the Barbaro blitz that is certain to bust out if the colt wins at Pimlico.

For Matz, he has lived a "Life Less Ordinary," from hero, to Olympic silver medalist, to Kentucky Derby-winning trainer.

In a scene from "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey's guardian angel, Clarence, could have been talking to Matz when he said: "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives."

We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but on June 10, Matz and Barbaro could touch people's lives in a way they haven't been touched in 28 years.

To purchase photos of Barbaro from this year's Kentucky Derby, click here.

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