05/01/2006 11:00PM

Matz accustomed to different path

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"I don't know why everybody's getting that that's such a long layoff. All his races have been spaced five and six weeks out. Unless I'm missing something, I don't see what the long layoff is. I'm very comfortable with it." - Michael Matz on Barbaro

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - This is the third time Michael Matz has been at Churchill Downs for the week of a Kentucky Derby, but the first time he has had a horse in the race. As he stood at a podium for a press conference one recent morning, Matz surveyed the scene and said, "I'm lucky to be here."

Of all the blather, spin, white lies, opinions, and facts that will emanate from the trainers of Derby contenders before Saturday's race, no truer words will be spoken. A mix of daring, fate, and conviction - wrapped in a cocoon of graciousness - has defined his life. Matz started riding as a teen, when he told a white lie to a farm owner about his aptitude as a rider. He survived a horrific plane crash in 1989 in which 111 of the 296 on board perished. And he has mapped out an unorthodox, but thus far flawless, path to the Derby with Barbaro, who will be attempting to become the first horse in 50 years to win the Derby off a five-week layoff.

Along the way, Matz, 55, had a celebrated career as a show-horse rider, which culminated with his carrying the United States flag in the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He then packed up his horsemanship and transferred it from the show-jumping ring to the racetrack.

It might seem trite to draw parallels from the heroics Matz displayed in the plane crash - when he rescued several children, including three siblings traveling without their parents - to his preparation for the Derby with Barbaro, but they are variations on a theme. Whether it is founded in a moral obligation, or in an endeavor that is both his passion and his occupation, Matz simply wants to do what is right.

And he firmly believes that bringing Barbaro into the Derby off a five-week layoff, and with just one race in 13 weeks, is what is right, in this instance. His decision is honed from years of being around horses and seeing performance horses reach their peak before the main event. It is something he has studiously tried to avoid with Barbaro, who comes into the Derby unbeaten in five starts, including the Florida Derby, and has trained sharply since his arrival here last week.

"You just want to do enough," Matz said. "You still want to have something left for the main competition. We've tried to do the whole thing as simple as possible. Sometimes that's the hardest thing in the world, to let a horse be a horse, because everybody wants to do this, everybody wants to do that.

"I've heard people say that this jockey rides this horse better than this jockey, and I don't remember who told me this, but it's true - it's which jockey hinders the horse the least. When you think about it, it's the same situation with the show horses. When you're riding, you try not to inhibit the horse too much. I feel the same with the training. Let the horse tell you what he wants and go on from there. He's not too difficult of a horse to be around."

Derby traditionalists will shy away from Barbaro because no horse has won the Derby off a five-week break since Needles in 1956. The countervailing opinion is that horses today race less often than they did in that era, Matz's horsemanship can trump any concerns over a layoff, and very few important preps have been run five weeks out.

"I don't know why everybody's getting that that's such a long layoff," Matz said. "All his races have been spaced five and six weeks out. Unless I'm missing something, I don't see what the long layoff is. There were no preps that were five weeks out before they moved the Florida Derby. I'm very comfortable with it."

Peter Brette, who is Matz's assistant and Barbaro's exercise rider, is adamant that Matz has the proper handle on Barbaro.

"When you've got a horse like this, it's not necessarily what you do right, but what you do wrong," Brette said. "You can get caught up in everything and give your horse another race. But Michael said this is what we're going to do, it's best for the horse. And we haven't done too much wrong."

Unlike the stereotype of a prominent horse-show rider, Matz was not a trust-fund baby. "My father was a plumber," he said.

As a teenager, Matz was working on a farm near his family's home in rural Pennsylvania, cutting grass, and doing odd chores, when the farm owner asked if he knew how to ride. Matz fibbed, said yes, and started regularly riding one of the farm's pleasure horses.

"What I put that poor horse through," he said, smiling.

Matz learned quickly, though. He competed in his first Olympic Games in 1976 in Montreal, at age 25. His final Olympics Games was in 1996, when he was part of the U.S. team that won a silver medal in show jumping. In between, he competed in three World Championships and four Pan American Games. He was the American Grand Prix Association's rider of the year in both 1981 and 1984.

His life was nearly ended on July 19, 1989, when he was aboard United Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago. The plane lost its hydraulics and made a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Video of the crash, which was shown on network news that evening and undoubtedly will be replayed again in the telling of the Matz story this weekend, is chilling. The plane cartwheels and explodes in a fireball. It is amazing anyone survived.

Matz and D.D. Alexander, who was then his girlfriend but is now his second wife, were returning from a working vacation in Hawaii. But they were not seated next to each other. After the crash, Matz helped guide Jody, Melissa, and Travis Roth to safety, then went back in looking for more survivors. For that, he was credited with being ABC-TV's Person of the Week. But in the immediate aftermath, he could not find D.D.

"It was not a nice time," Matz said, in the typical way he understates the situation whenever he is asked to recall it. "We didn't find each other for about 40 minutes. I went around the plane. She was sitting right in the bulkhead before first class, and that's mainly the people who were killed."

The day after the crash, Matz and D.D. flew home to Pennsylvania, on a private jet arranged by horse owner Joe Allen.

"It was either that or drive back or take a train," said Matz. "We didn't have too many choices."

Matz has six children, two from his first marriage, to Brigitte, and four with D.D. His oldest daughter, Michelle, 24, said her father's resolve following the crash was consistent with his forward-looking philosophy.

"His attitude towards life in general is don't stay down," said Michelle, an aspiring racing broadcaster who works for her father at his main barn in Fair Hill, Md., where he has 50 horses. "Not getting on a plane again just doesn't cross his mind."

After exiting the show-jumping world, Matz turned to training. He said the biggest adjustment was giving up the reins to someone else when it was time to compete.

"When I first started training, that was a little frustrating," Matz said. "For some reason, I never had an inkling to gallop horses. I love to watch someone gallop. It's a real art. But I never rode a race.

"Now, that part's not hard, especially when you have a guy like Edgar Prado," he said, referring to the rider of Barbaro.

Matz's biggest victory to date was with Kicken Kris in the 2004 Arlington Million.

"He's very ambitious," Brette said. "He's very hard-working. He's the first one here in the morning. He's a horseman, regardless of whether he'd be training polo ponies or racehorses."

The Derby marks another chapter in his incredible, made-for-TV tale.

"The closing ceremonies of the Olympics were probably the greatest thing in his life," Michelle Matz said. "He's such a good man. It showed when all the athletes voted for him. And the fact that it was our flag at our Olympics, that was really cool."

"When I rode show horses, I wanted to go to the Olympics," Matz said. "This is the first time I've had a horse in the Derby. It's pretty exciting. I've been lucky so far in my life. I can't complain."