05/17/2006 11:00PM

Matz relies on his right-hand man

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Assistant trainer and exercise rider Peter Brette (left) rides Barbaro while chatting with trainer Michael Matz at Fair Hill Training Center. Brette formerly was a jockey and trainer in Dubai.

ELKTON, Md. - Michael Matz and Peter Brette have been associated for just a year, but they quickly developed a rapport and level of respect that culminated in the exacting preparation of Barbaro for his victory two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby. So far, they have been perfect.

On Saturday, their quest will continue in the 131st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. Barbaro, trained by Matz for owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson, will be seeking to remain unbeaten in seven starts and clear the second hurdle of the Triple Crown.

This will be the first time that Barbaro will be coming back to race in just two weeks. He had six weeks between his first and second starts, seven weeks to his third start, five weeks to his fourth, eight weeks to his fifth, and then five weeks to the Derby. The plan was designed to have Barbaro fresh and fit for the demands of the Triple Crown, which require a horse to race three times in five weeks. It was a schedule that both Matz and Brette, Matz's assistant and exercise rider, agreed upon without reservations.

The respect they have for one another is on display every morning at the Fair Hill training center, where Barbaro has been based. When Barbaro goes to the track, Brette is aboard, accompanied by Matz astride his pony. It is a long, tranquil walk from Matz's barn to the track, giving them an opportunity to quietly discuss their plans. Throughout the morning, Matz often heads to a second, adjacent barn, leaving Brette to make sure that sets of horses go out to train properly, matching riders with their mounts and making sure each horse does what is expected that day.

"He's a great asset, besides the fact that he's a tremendous rider," Matz, 55, said of Brette, 40. "For me, I can do other things and I know the barn's going to be taken care of. He's a terrific person and a good horseman. It gives you a lot of confidence to have a guy like that, that you can depend on."

Once Matz turns Brette loose on Barbaro, he relies on Brette's instincts to give Barbaro exactly what he needs. Never was that confidence more apparent than on the morning of April 29 at Churchill Downs, when Barbaro had his final workout before the Derby. Just as Barbaro was about to break off for his workout, a piercing alarm sounded, signifying a loose horse on the racetrack. Instead of proceeding, Brette gathered up Barbaro, let the commotion subside, jogged him back again to where the work was supposed to begin, then guided him through a brilliant drill - the most impressive of any Derby runner the week of the race.

"Whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, I thought it was best to pull him up," Brette said. "I jogged him back an eighth of a mile and set him off again."

Brette is studiously quiet, much like Matz. The other morning at Fair Hill, while many of Matz's exercise riders engaged in playful repartee - subjects included relationships and late-night munchies - while jogging their horses under the shed row, Brette was a picture of concentration, speaking only to acknowledge familiar visitors.

"Look at Peter," Matz said, sotto voce. "No nonsense."

The other key members of Barbaro's team include his groom, Eduardo Salazar, and hot walker, Richie Orozco. Salazar, 38, is from Mexico and has been Barbaro's groom for five months. He has been in this country nine years. Orozco, 17, is one of three family members who work for Matz. Both his father, Rafael, and older brother, also named Rafael, are grooms. Orozco is the hot walker for all the horses Brette rides, including Barbaro. He and his family came to this country 12 years ago from Mexico.

For Brette, getting to work with Matz was a fresh start. Brette, from northeast England, is a former jockey and trainer who came to this country two years ago with his wife, Kim, and their then-infant son, Nicholas.

The first job Brette lined up lasted only a few months. Serendipitously, however, Brette's riding had caught the eye of Matz, a former Olympic-class rider, who had horses at Palm Beach Downs, the south Florida training center where Brette was working.

"Peter was working at Palm Beach Downs for The Vinery," Matz said. "We would talk out at the track. Something happened with one of the managers there, and he said he was leaving. I asked if he thought about coming over. I said I think we're getting better horses, and it would be a good opportunity for you. He talked to his wife, we had a couple more talks, and he said he'd like to try it.

"He started after Florida, last April or May, just about a year ago. He seemed like a good guy when I spoke with him all the time and, watching him, I knew he was a good rider. Thank God he took my offer."

Brette was raised in Stockton-on-Tees and got interested in racing through an uncle and cousin who were involved in the sport. His first break came while working for the top British trainer Michael Stoute in the late 1980's. "I had a chance to sit on some really good horses - Musical Bliss, Zilzal," Brette said.

Brette started working winters in Dubai for trainer Bill Mather, for whom Brette was both the stable jockey and assistant trainer. According to the Emirates Racing Association website, Brette was the leading rider in Dubai during the 1991-92 season and was second three other times. When Mather retired, rather unexpectedly, Brette decided to stay on in Dubai and turn to training.

"But it's very difficult if you didn't have one of the sheikhs" as a benefactor, Brette said, referring to the ruling Maktoum family. "They give you everything you want, but it's difficult to compete."

Brette had 17 wins during the 2000-01 season and had 12 wins during the winter of 2001-02, but he had just 3 wins in 2002-03 and 1 from 39 starters in 2003-04.

"I went from competing 10 to 12 years to not competing for two years, and that was a disappointment," Brette said. "Luckily, we got a green card. And Nicholas was born. We decided the time was right to come to America."

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