04/26/2013 4:01PM

Jay Hovdey: Kentucky Derby-winning trainers share some special memories

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Michael Matz recalls that he took a lot of heat from the media in 2006 when he brought Barbaro to the Kentucky Derby without having raced for six weeks.

It’s a pretty exclusive club – just 20 living members – and many of them weren’t exactly household names when they showed up in Louisville. But when they left town, they were known far and wide in the world of sports as trainers who somehow got the job done in the game’s most unforgiving crucible. They had won the Kentucky Derby.

At this point, one week out from the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, the trainers of the 20 or so horses still in Derby mix are counting the days and the hours until they lead their 3-year-olds into the arena. If they have been there before they will know how to parcel their time and preserve their sanity. The rookies will fret, but then at some point they will look around and take comfort in the fact that everyone else is in the same storm-tossed boat.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders with odds and video]

“I wasn’t supposed to win,” said Chip Woolley, who drove Mine That Bird from New Mexico to Kentucky two weeks before the 2009 Derby. “That takes off a lot of pressure. Somebody asked me what happens if you run last. I told them if that happened I’d join a long list of great trainers who did.”

He didn’t. Mine That Bird, who couldn’t win the Sunland Derby, won the Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-1, drawing off through the stretch to win by six. That was the headline on the cover of Sports Illustrated that week – “50-1” – which also was the last time a horse racing story made the cover of the national magazine.

“In my own mind I knew I belonged there,” Woolley said. “And the whole time we were there my horse never missed an oat. I never thought he’d be any worse than fourth or fifth. ‘Course, there weren’t a whole lot of people coming around I could tell that to.”

By the time John Servis got to the 2004 Kentucky Derby with the unbeaten Arkansas Derby winner Smarty Jones, the trainer was a hardened veteran of the Mid-Atlantic circuit who had won an Alabama Stakes and campaigned a respectable number of stakes horses. Still, as a Derby rookie he admits to making a mistake he had the good sense to correct before any harm was done to his chances.

“There was a lot of construction going on at Churchill Downs, and I didn’t know how hectic that was going to be,” Servis said. “I knew Keeneland would have a nice, laid-back atmosphere for my horse, so we’d go there and maybe head for Churchill four days before the race.”

Servis got it half right.

“Keeneland was just what I expected,” he said. “Every afternoon I’d go back to the barn and Smarty was sprawled out in his stall just snoozing away. Unfortunately, he didn’t care for the racetrack. He wasn’t as aggressive as he usually was. Kind of off the bit, and he’d come back some mornings with a little bit of filling in his ankles. Nothing serious, but you could tell it wasn’t to his liking.”

Finally, on a rainy morning about 10 days out from the Derby, Servis sent Smarty Jones to the Keeneland training track instead of the main track. The difference was remarkable.

“I ordered a van that morning to take him to Churchill Downs,” Servis said. “Once we got there he was hitting on all cylinders again. And as far as the atmosphere at Churchill, he loved it. I mean, every time you walked by his stall, if he wasn’t eating he was sleeping. When he worked lights out the Saturday before the race I was feeling pretty good.”

And no doubt gave himself a pat on the back for making the move from Keeneland to Churchill.

“No, I was kind of mad at myself for taking so long to figure it out,” Servis replied.

Smarty Jones skipped over a sloppy racetrack to win the 2004 Derby by 2 3/4 lengths. You also could find his winning image on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” that week. Servis has not been back to the Derby since.

“It took a little while to get over the fact that people stopped calling me,” Servis cracked. “But I got over that.”

Michael Matz can be forgiven if he is going through a little bit of media withdrawal this year. He took the 2006 Kentucky Derby with unbeaten Florida Derby winner Barbaro in his first try. Last year, he had Union Rags, who was a troubled seventh as second choice in the field of 20. Matz, a former Olympic equestrian, recalls spending a lot of time during his first Derby go-round pumping fellow horsemen for information.

“The press was on my case for not running in the six weeks since winning the Florida Derby,” Matz said. “And you do worry about whether you’ve done too much or too little. Most trainers told me it was very important your horse had enough speed to get away from the gate and be in good position for the first turn. So I spent most of that week before the Derby worrying about the first turn. It scared the pants off me.”

Let the record show Barbaro handled the first turn like a champ and went on from there to win by 6 1/2 lengths. The relief for Matz was palpable, and enabled him to erase the near trauma of Barbaro’s important half-mile work the week before the race under Peter Brette.

“He was about to break off when the sirens went off for a loose horse,” Matz said. “I was at the five-sixteenths pole waiting for my horse to work past me, but no Barbaro. Turns out Peter stopped when he was ready to break off, jogged back and waited for the loose horse to be caught, then started again. That shows you what kind of horse he was.”

Welcome to Derby week.


Delrene Sims More than 1 year ago
After reading your article, I have come to the conclusion that all the winning and losing trainers that are living must have a very special story to relate . Each and every one is such a part of the Kentucky Derby experience. Thanks for re-telling some of them. I for one, would love more.
B Smith More than 1 year ago
"An oat" probably wasn't the only thing that Mine That Bird didn't miss, amirite?
phil bailey More than 1 year ago
Conspiracy theorists...gotta love em.
Debra Medlock More than 1 year ago
Talk to Billy Turner - his Triple Crown run with Seattle Slew is still a classic!
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Absolutely Debra and I say again, Billy Turner belongs in that Hall of Fame!
John Moore More than 1 year ago
Yes indeed. Do not know why he is not in the Racing Hall of Fame.
Jerry Ray More than 1 year ago
Not as good as Affirmed's was?
Curtis V Slewster More than 1 year ago
That's funny, the Slewster took care of that business. Slew rained all over that guys parade. Gave him a BiG time whooping. 2X's..........18+ lengths...
Debra Medlock More than 1 year ago
I own a Seattle Slew stallion and I wouldn't trade him for the world! Smart, funny, gets beautiful babies. I'll have a *slew* of the them going to the track in the next few years! LONG LIVE THE KING! Beat Affirmed far and square. Much better sire, too. Look at the influence AP Indy has had!
Curtis V Slewster More than 1 year ago
That's neat. Billy Turner burned too many bridges to get into the Hall. In his heyday, the Slewster topped $1Mil per/pop. W/the stipulation of no guarantee of a lve foal. Back in line & try again. Of course, another $1Mil. The highest stud fee the world has ever seen. This year the Ky. Derby is loaded w/Slewsters. I've got all the books & videos & pix. If you get a chance, notice the long free flowing mane that was Slew's signature. Now, check out ITSMYLUCKYDAY......It's eerie. He's got the same mane look alike. I'll leave you w/this..It's my sign off..... "When you got Slewster......You got Horse....." Jay, How are you..? You have a distinct advantage over all the other writers. You have Julie K.
Curtis V Slewster More than 1 year ago
That should be LIVE foal.
Thomas Nicholson More than 1 year ago
Barbaro was a very very special horse. They don't come along that often. Plus as a stud horse who knows what would have happened??? Tragic story for Michael Matz and American racing!
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
Charlie, David Cross Jr, Sherriffs, et al ect ect
WafflesCharly More than 1 year ago
There is saying that goes "everyone speaks of the fair, depending on what rides they got on" . Doesn't matter if you are an experienced trainer in the ways of the Derby or not. Thre are offcourse certain circumstances that you learn as you go, but the bottom line is that once the first Saturday in May is here, and you saddle your horse and send off to his date with destiny, it's all out of your hands. There are 20 horses in that starting gate, and each one of them earned their spot in there. The difficult part is getting to he gate, once you are there, it's anyone's race....even money or 200-1. Got to love it!
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Welcome indeed! As an aside - on Derby Day 09 a friend called me up and said he was going to a Derby Party. He then asked who did I liked. "Nobody", I said, "the race is wide-open. Get the biggest price you can." I was working, so I bet not a penny. But THAT race was THAT wide-open. (friend bet the wrong long-shot but had a good time). True story. Hope for a fast track and let it fly. Thanks, Jay.
Marc Estrich More than 1 year ago
Great article!! No mystery the winners are generally thriving leading up to the race. Quite tragic about Barbaro. He won the Derby going wide, pulling away in a common gallop. Hardly even set down. He would have had a big shot IMO at the Triple Crown. Bernardini became a great hoss but was much less seasoned than Barbaro Preakness and Derby time.
Marc Estrich More than 1 year ago
correction Preakness and BELMONT time. Apologies.
Jerry Ray More than 1 year ago
Don't forget Majestic Prince.He was the first unbeaten to win the Derby
Alex More than 1 year ago
Hope you and bride are doing well. It would have been nice to hear her at least drop a line on the passing of Colonial Affair. A lot of us thought the ball was dropped on that one.
John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
Colonial Affair. Really nice horse. Cashed a huge ticket with Julie, and Colonial Affair. Look at the replay as often as I can.
[removed] More than 1 year ago
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Standiforx More than 1 year ago
If you're really that cynical, why do you even post here? I'm tired of you people who always find fault with everyone who is successful. Is living in the trailer park getting a little too confining for you?
mrm More than 1 year ago
What an idiotic statement.
prose More than 1 year ago
Standiforx and mrm, you can't blame Perl for being suspicious, we all know the game is rife with illegal drugs. Just look at the frog venom scandal of the past year or so. Now, what Perl doesn't understand is that everyone of those Kentucky Derby horses are subject to major blood screening. If there is an race in America that is totally transparent, it's the Derby.
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
I think ther is much, much more that Perl does't understand.