04/19/2012 1:15PM

Kentucky Derby: Matz keeps Union Rags fresh for big day

Tom Keyser
Union Rags’s preparation for the Kentucky Derby has mirrored that of Barbaro, who won in 2006. Above, Union Rags finishes third in the Florida Derby.

To much of the racing world, trainer Michael Matz first gained prominence during the spring of 2006, when he brought the unbeaten colt Barbaro to the Kentucky Derby and made off with the sport’s most coveted prize.

In the weeks leading up to the race, much was made over the fact Barbaro would be attempting to win the Derby without having raced for five weeks, something that had not been accomplished in 50 years. Although Matz had been training Thoroughbred racehorses for less than a decade, he was relying on three decades of experience around elite equine athletes.

A lesson Matz learned in 1976 served as the impetus for the approach he took with Barbaro in 2006, and for the way he has handled Union Rags in preparing for this year’s Kentucky Derby on May 5.

Before training racehorses, Matz, 61, was one of the world’s best show-jumping riders. He qualified for his first Olympic Games in 1976, in Montreal, aboard Grande. In the team competition, Matz and Grande had 16 faults in the first round and 24 faults in the second round. They did not even advance to the individual finals, and the United States team finished fourth overall, one spot out of medaling.

“I watched everybody competing every day, and instead of preparing the way I thought was best for the event, I pushed my horse because we were competing against each other, and I wanted the coach to see it,” Matz said recently from the Palm Meadows training center in Florida, where he was based for the winter. “I thought I rode well, but my horse couldn’t handle it. It was too much. I vowed I would never do that again.”

Fast forward 30 years, and Matz deftly brought Barbaro up to the race of his life in the Derby. Whatever concern there was over Barbaro’s not having raced in five weeks became moot when he romped to a 6 1/2-length victory, the biggest margin in 60 years.

“In this sport, it seems so many horses who get to the Derby are overtrained,” Matz said. “Not that I’m an expert – I haven’t had a lot of horses in the Derby – but it seemed to me like when a lot of horses got to the Derby, they were shot.”

In the five runnings of the Derby since then, three horses – Big Brown, Mine That Bird, and Animal Kingdom – have won without having raced in at least five weeks. That’s four times in the last six years.

Matz will be attempting to add to that list this year with Union Rags, whose preparation mirrors that of Barbaro, right down to Matz’s leaning heavily on the advice of his assistant, Peter Brette, who was the exercise rider for Barbaro and is the exercise rider for Union Rags.

In 2006, Barbaro won the Tropical Park Derby at Calder on the first day of the year to remain unbeaten in three starts. He then won the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park in his first start on dirt.

“The plan Peter and I made was to skip the Fountain of Youth and go straight to the Florida Derby because we wanted a horse who was fresh,” Matz said. “And if we were lucky enough to win the Derby, we’d have a horse for the rest of the series.

“It was a good plan with Barbaro. It was unfortunate what happened,” Matz said, referring to the catastrophic injury that Barbaro suffered in the Preakness. “And it’s a good plan with this horse. The plan is to have a fresh horse for the series. Maybe that’s thinking too far ahead, but when the opportunity arises, you have to be ready.”

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Union Rags also used the Florida Derby as his final prep for the Kentucky Derby and finished a troubled third. Like Barbaro, he raced twice at Gulfstream Park. But because Union Rags was far more accomplished at 2 than Barbaro, including racing in the Breeders’ Cup, Matz gave him a vacation over the winter, skipped the Holy Bull, and had Union Rags make his first start of the year in the Fountain of Youth, which he won.

“The timing was right,” Matz said. “We didn’t have to ship. It was the best thing for the horse.”

In the weeks leading up to the 2006 Florida Derby, Barbaro worked five furlongs 11 days before the race, then came back with a half-mile drill four days out. Union Rags also went five furlongs in his penultimate drill for the Florida Derby and then came back with a half-mile drill.

Following the Florida Derby, Barbaro first headed to Keeneland, where he worked five furlongs 13 days before the Kentucky Derby. Barbaro then moved to Churchill Downs, where his brilliant final workout seven days in front of the race – officially four furlongs in 46 seconds, the fastest of 69 at the distance that morning, but with a powerful gallop-out to six furlongs – had him primed for his runaway victory.

“Barbaro went through a big growth spurt when he went to Keeneland,” Matz said. “By the time he got to Churchill Downs, he had grown two inches and filled out.”

Union Rags arrived at Keeneland earlier this week, accompanied by Brette, who said Union Rags is further along physically compared with Barbaro at the same stage.

“It’s a little bit of a different situation,” Brette said from Kentucky on Wednesday. “Union Rags has always been so far forward. Barbaro, after the Florida Derby, he really blossomed. This horse has settled in really well here.”

Before Union Rags left Florida, Matz gave him an easy half-mile breeze in 48.40 seconds with Brette aboard.

“Usually, we just do a maintenance work, 50 or 52,” Brette said. “But we did a little more because, in the Florida Derby, he only ran three-eighths of a mile.”

Like Barbaro, Union Rags is expected to work at Keeneland, then have his final work at Churchill Downs.

“He should improve the way Barbaro did,” Matz said. “The Florida Derby was a tough race for Barbaro. He got a lot out of it.”

Matz approaches the Derby like a craftsman. The races, and the workouts, are used to lay a foundation.
This is Matz’s third run at the Derby, but he’s not a rookie at top-level competition. He competed in three Olympic Games, beginning with Montreal in 1976 and Barcelona in 1992, when he finished 10th in the individual competition. In his final Olympics, in 1996 in Atlanta, he and his horse Rhum IV were part of a United States team that earned a silver medal. They had a mere four faults the first round, and only four more in the second round.

Matz was so highly respected that he carried the flag when leading the U.S. team during the closing ceremonies.

“When he walked by me, I got all choked up,” said Marty Bauman, who at the time was the public relations director for the U.S. Equestrian Team and is now the executive director of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. “It was quite a moment for those of us who know him.”

In addition to competing in three Olympics, Matz was in four Pan-American Games, in which he won eight medals, five of them gold. He won the U.S. Equestrian team show jumping championship a record six times. And he was elected to the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in the fall of 2005.

Those years of experience around top show jumpers made his transition to racehorses, particularly those with designs on the Derby, almost seamless.

“This is what I got out of show jumping,” Matz said. “It doesn’t matter how many classes you win during the week. If you win your class on Sunday, that’s what counts.”

Workouts: Barbaro and Union Rags

Comparing the workout patterns of Barbaro and Union Rags, from their final 2-year-old work to the Kentucky Derby.


4/29/2006 4F :46.00 Breezing 1/69
4/23/2006 5F 1:01.40 Breezing 3/8
3/27/2006 4F :48.00 Handily 2/25
3/20/2006 5F 1:01.60 Handily 4/26
3/13/2006 5F 1:00.40 Handily 2/30
3/4/2006 5F 1:01.60 Handily 10/24
2/22/2006 4F :50.40 Breezing 12/15
1/29/2006 4F :48.40 Handily 4/46
1/23/2006 4F :48.40 Handily 1/20
1/16/2006 5F 1:02.00 Breezing 10/22
12/26/2005 5F 1:01.40 Handily 1/12

 Union Rags

4/12/2012 4F :48.40 Breezing 2/16
3/24/2012 4F :49.10 Breezing 13/41
3/17/2012 5F 1:04.21 Breezing 22/22
3/10/2012 4F :50.76 Breezing 48/51
2/19/2012 4F :48.81 Breezing 13/40
2/13/2012 5F 1:03.08 Breezing 21/26
2/6/2012 4F :48.67 Breezing 1/27
1/31/2012 5F 1:02.74 Breezing 5/12
1/24/2012 5F 1:00.82 Breezing 2/28
1/18/2012 4F :49.63 Breezing 13/25
1/11/2012 3F :38.35 Breezing 5/6
10/28/2011 5F 1:00.80 Breezing 1/5

*Expected to work twice before Kentucky Derby