Trainer Michael Matz intimately familiar with good and bad fortune
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) — Horse racing people talk a lot about luck. There's good luck, bad luck and many fine degrees in between. A horseshoe comes loose. A longshot comes out of nowhere. When winning and losing revolve around 1,200-pound animals who cannot enunciate their thoughts before galloping 35 mph on legs as delicate as saplings, luck explains the unexplainable.
Michael Matz knows the extremes. Born the son of a plumber, he became a champion in the exclusive old-wealth world of show jumping. New to the art of training, he coached the once-in-a-lifetime Barbaro to a stirring Kentucky Derby victory, only to watch the colt break a leg in the Preakness and endure eight anxious months of treatment before he was euthanized. Traveling home 23 years ago, faced with a choice of two flights, Matz picked the airplane that crashed upside down in an Iowa cornfield, killing 111, but saved three children before climbing back into the burning wreckage to rescue a baby.
And now, Matz is the trainer of Union Rags, the 9-2 second selection to win Saturday's Kentucky Derby, but the favorite in the minds of many, despite his third-place finish in the Florida Derby, when he got boxed in by his former jockey. Union Rags has the same speed and grace as Barbaro, who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby by the largest margin in 60 years and was projected to be the long-awaited Triple Crown champion.
"Most trainers never saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby and I've got a second one, just as talented as Barbaro," Matz said. "What are the odds of that?"
Phyllis Wyeth knows about odds. Wyeth, owner of Union Rags, sold her lackadaisical yearling for $140,000, then woke her husband in the middle of the night to describe her recurring dreams about Union Rags and declare, "I have to get that horse back." So she bought him at auction for $390,000. At age 71, Wyeth has a horse _ that horse of her dreams _ in the Kentucky Derby for the first time.
Good luck? Wyeth was born into a prominent Pennsylvania family (her mother was a du Pont, her father a polo champion and horse owner) and rode in steeplechase races. As a young woman, she bucked her parents' support of Richard Nixon to volunteer in the campaign of John F. Kennedy.
Bad luck? Fifty years ago, after her morning ride, Wyeth, who was never seriously injured in a race, was driving to her job at the White House sorting mail for President Kennedy. Her car was in a head-on collision. She broke her neck and, at age 20, was paralyzed from the waist down. In 1963, her hero, Kennedy, was assassinated.
Luck? Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned Jamie Wyeth, son of artist Andrew Wyeth and grandson of N.C. Wyeth, to paint a posthumous portrait of JFK. Wyeth had danced with Phyllis Mills years earlier at a party. He met her again at a steeplechase race. She was a spectator, wearing leg braces and using crutches. He wanted to paint her "interesting" face. She became a model for him. Forty-four years after they married, the Wyeths hope to join Union Rags in the Churchill Downs winner's circle, as they did two months ago at Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth Stakes.
Neither Matz nor Wyeth consider themselves lucky or unlucky. They don't see horse racing as a game of chance. For them, it is a labor of love.
"Everything I do is for the horses' benefit," Matz said. "They can't help themselves. The hard part is that you're with them all the time. You can't just think of this as a business. You become attached to the horses."
Matz, 65, returned to Churchill Downs this week as a competitor for the first time since a statue of Barbaro was erected at the front gate and his ashes were placed in the base.
Matz's wife, D.D., a horsewoman, said he works seven days a week, starting at 5 a.m. Their honeymoon was at Keeneland. He's always been known, even as a show jumper who retired as leading money winner in U.S. history ($1.7 million), for his attention to detail.
"He folds his sweaters perfectly," she said, laughing. "His strength is knowing his horses, listening to them. "He wants them happy, fresh and fit. As a jumper, he never looked like he was moving on the course because of all the time he'd spent with his horse."
After the Barbaro tragedy, Matz vowed never to become so devoted to a horse again. But he's fallen for Union Rags. Who couldn't?
"He's a brilliant athlete, super disposition," said Peter Brette, Matz's assistant trainer and a former champion jockey in Dubai. Brette, an Englishman, rode Barbaro and now rides Union Rags in morning workouts. "He's got the same power and balance as Barbaro but he's more responsive."
Union Rags is an imposing 3-year-old at nearly 17 hands tall. Yet he seems to adore Wyeth. When she approached him in the Gulfstream paddock, he wasn't scared of her motorized scooter. He stuck out his nose to nuzzle her.
At the Wyeths' Point Lookout Farm in Chadds Ford, Pa., Union Rags was the eighth and last foal of Tempo, who nearly died giving birth to her seventh. He's a descendant of her father's horse Glad Rags. That's one reason she bought him back _ he was like a member of the family.
Barbaro had the same effect on his owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, and on Matz and D.D. After Barbaro was injured on national TV, fans and animal lovers rooted for his recovery. At the clinic, they arrayed signs, flowers, candles. Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai sent holy water from the Jordan River and an ostrich egg. Matz still receives letters, such as one from a girl in Montana who recently wrote: "I know you had a part of you go with Barbaro and you can never put it back."
Barbaro had 10 operations. He'd improve, then another problem would fester.
"Gretchen wanted to save him but never wanted him to suffer," Matz said. "Horses are on their feet all the time. It's a tough process. He got laminitis, which can be very painful."
Matz tended to Barbaro every day. He changed his bandages, took him for walks.
In January of 2007, Matz went to Florida for the winter season. D.D. visited Barbaro and said he didn't look comfortable. The Jacksons and veterinarian Dean Richardson debated performing another surgery. Matz was opposed. Finally, early one morning, Gretchen called Matz to say it was time to let Barbaro go. They would wait for Matz to fly back and say goodbye. He declined.
Matz had witnessed death in 1989, when he and D.D. were on United flight 323. Matz sat next to three unaccompanied children. A film on horses Sunday Silence and Easy Goer was showing when an engine blew. Upon impact, the plane cartwheeled and broke into three sections.
Matz helped the kids escape and told them to run through the cornfield to safety, then went back and rescued an 11-month-old wailing in a luggage bin. He pulled a burned man onto a stretcher, saw others missing limbs and a dead woman in a yellow dress. At first, he thought it was D.D. but she had gotten out and was with the kids.
Matz, a three-time Olympian, was honored by fellow athletes at the 1996 Games when they voted for him to carry the U.S. flag. The children he rescued stay in touch and attended Barbaro's Derby race.
In 1998, tired of breaking bones and wrecking his shoulder in falls, he switched to thoroughbred training because "I was too honest to be a horse salesman and didn't want to stand in the ring giving lessons."
A father of six, he lives with D.D. on a farm in Coatesville, Pa.
Matz is most content with his horses. He's with them before dawn. He has a deliberate way of speaking. They respond to his calm words, his gentle touch. They know nothing about good luck or bad luck. They just want to run. That's why he loves them.