Updated on 09/18/2011 12:19AM

For Matz, a good kind of pressure

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"If he can't win against the caliber of runners in the Holy Bull, then he'll be a turf horse." - Trainer Michael Matz on Barbaro

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Michael Matz is a judicious horse trainer, and he exercises restraint when asked how good his colt Barbaro might be. But some people who watched the Maryland-based youngster win the Laurel Futurity in November wondered if he might be the most talented Thoroughbred on the planet. The effort was so impressive that Barbaro's owners received - and rejected - a staggering $5 million offer to buy him.

Barbaro might be good enough to win the Kentucky Derby. Or he could win the Epsom Derby. His future - whether he will pursue the Triple Crown races or a career as a turf specialist - will be determined Saturday afternoon, when he runs on dirt for the first time in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. In any case, the colt is likely to thrust his trainer into Thoroughbred racing's spotlight.

Not that Matz is a stranger to public attention. He had a distinguished career as a horse-show rider and won an Olympic medal. He received widespread national publicity, and was named ABC News's "Person of the Week," for a heart-stopping act of heroism in a plane crash.

Unlike most people in the elitist horse-show world, Matz was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The son of a Reading, Pa., plumber, he was driving a tractor on a farm when he got his first exposure to horses. The farm owner gave him a chance to ride, and Matz was hooked. He had the gift of being able to communicate with the animals under him, and that talent led him to a successful career that included a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics.

Despite his many triumphs, the unforgettable moment of Matz's life occurred on July 19, 1989, aboard United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Philadelphia. After one of the plane's engines exploded, the pilot's voice came on the intercom and told the 285 passengers: "We're going in for a rough landing. I'll count 4-3-2-1 before we hit."

Matz was sitting near three young children who were traveling alone; he told the man sitting next to him: "No matter what happens, we have to watch for them."

Flight 232 crashed in a cornfield in Sioux City, Iowa, rolling over and over, breaking apart into three pieces. The cabin was filled with dense smoke. Matz told the children to grab hold of his belt, made his way through a tangle of cables, and led his entourage through an opening in the fuselage. Having escaped to

safety, he and another man heard the crying of a baby. They followed the sound to a luggage compartment, where Matz lifted an infant to safety. Only when he finally emerged from the plane did he realize the enormity of the event; 112 of his fellow passengers had died in the inferno.

Matz keeps in touch with the children, but otherwise he has tried to put the tragedy behind him and talks about it reluctantly. He doesn't want the crash to be the defining moment of his life. And in 2000 he set out to define a new professional life for himself.

When he failed to make the Olympic team that year, he embarked in earnest on a career as a Thoroughbred trainer, and found good clients - many with horse-show connections - who were willing to give him horses. His work as a trainer quickly started attracting attention.

"He has a high reputation," said Gretchen Jackson, Matz's neighbor in Unionville, Pa., and the owner (with her husband, Roy) of Barbaro. "He's a horseman; he's honorable and straightforward; he's steadily grown in his capabilities."

Matz confirmed his reputation as an adept handler of grass runners when Kicken Kris won the Arlington Million in 2004, and Barbaro has further boosted that reputation.

As a 2-year-old, Barbaro had trained well on the dirt at Matz's headquarters in Fair Hill, Md. But Matz assumed he would prefer grass because of his pedigree, and he launched the colt's career in a one-mile maiden race on the turf at Delaware Park. Barbaro routed the field by 8 1/2 lengths. In the Laurel Futurity he vied for the lead and then ran away from his rivals by eight lengths, displaying the sharp acceleration in the stretch that is the mark of great turf horses. He made his record a perfect 3 for 3 on the turf by winning a stakes at Calder.

If Barbaro can run as well on dirt as he does on the turf, he will be a strong contender for the Triple Crown races. Matz is hopeful: "He's worked very well on dirt, and his older brother was a stakes winner on dirt. This is the perfect time to try. If he can't win against the caliber of runners in the Holy Bull, then he'll be a turf horse."

He will be attempting a difficult transition Saturday. Few horses possess the same degree of talent on both surfaces, because grass and dirt racing are very different games. Turf races are typically won by the horse with the best late kick, while American dirt races usually reward horses with superior speed.

If Barbaro fails in the Holy Bull, and proves himself a grass specialist, what does he do next? Matz mentioned such objectives as the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs in the summer, but the fact is that there are few big-time opportunities for U.S. 3-year-old turf runners until the fall. It hardly makes sense to turn down $5 million in order to point for a race at Colonial Downs. Since the Jacksons were sporting enough to reject this money - "You've got to be foolish sometimes," Gretchen Jackson said - they should be sporting enough to go for glory: Try to win the most prestigious race for 3-year-olds on the turf - the Epsom Derby. No American-based horse has won the classic since it was first run in 1780.

Whatever goal Barbaro pursues will be a great adventure for the owners and a challenge for the trainer. When a relatively inexperienced trainer takes a horse into classic races, it is usually relevant to wonder how he will handle the pressure at the upper echelon of the game. The Triple Crown has taken a merciless toll on many trainers. But nobody needs to speculate how Michael Matz will respond to pressure.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post