Matz Has New Derby Shot, but Barbaro Memories Remain

Matz Has New Derby Shot, but Barbaro Memories Remain
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Trainer Michael Matz just after last year's Kentucky Derby win.
Michael Matz could have another horse for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) this year, yet nothing can replace his memories of Barbaro.

The trainer made that perfectly clear Thursday morning outside his barn at Palm Meadows training center, when he pulled an envelope from his car and shared a letter sent by a young boy from Namibia.

"He's 10 years old, he's an orphan, and he has AIDS," Matz said, his voice cracking with emotion. "He knew about Barbaro."

Ten-year-old Mateo rides at an orphanage, and when the headmistress told him Matz used to jump horses "he got obsessed with writing us a letter," Matz said, "because he wants to jump, too.

"Then my wife wrote back and told him her six children rode," added Matz, a three-time Olympian in equestrian. "And the headmistress wrote us a letter that said he was smiles from ear to ear -- he ran into another room under the table so the kids couldn't see him. She said he sleeps with the letter."

The horse's dramatic effect on a sick, young orphan halfway around the world is another example of how Barbaro has become so revered.

"I'm never going to be over Barbaro," Matz said. "It's a good memory and I'll always have that memory, but I can't live in the past all the time."

On Saturday, Matz will send out Chelokee in the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park, hoping his 3-year-old colt can prove himself good enough to run in the Derby on May 5.

"He seems like he's getting better with every race," Matz said. "Whether he's as good as the top level, that has to be seen. That's why we're giving him that opportunity to try."

Just a year ago, it was an undefeated Barbaro winning the Florida Derby before his overpowering victory in the Derby five weeks later. He then shattered his right hind leg a few strides into the Preakness (gr. I) and was euthanized eight months later, on Jan. 29, after a gallant fight for survival.

Chelokee has won two of five races, is making his stakes debut and is 8-1 on the morning line.

The bay colt broke his maiden by 13 lengths at Delaware Park in October, and beat a quality field in an allowance race at Gulfstream on March 3. The son of Cherokee Run likely needs to finish first or second to be among the top Derby contenders.

Comparing the two seems natural, but Matz says "it's unfair to compare any horse to Barbaro.

"We only had one Derby horse and that was a pretty special one," he said. "So whether we're lucky enough to get back this year remains to be seen. Last year at this time, we knew we were going in that direction. This year, it's either yes or no."

Peter Brette, Matz's assistant, compares horses to Barbaro all the time.

"You're constantly surrounded by horses, and every time you ride one you just think of him," said the Englishman who exercised Barbaro and now handles Chelokee in the morning. "Obviously, you are going to compare them forever. When we get babies in, you're going to compare them straightaway."

However, he says Barbaro is the horse of a lifetime. "Twenty four years I've been riding, and he was the best. I can't imagine sitting on something as good as him."

"Right now, I'd love nothing more than for this horse to run well and go back to the Kentucky Derby," Matz said of Chelokee. "Whether I have the same shot as I did last year nobody will know. But we're trying."

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