01/30/2007 1:00AM

Matz soldiers on with Barbaro gone


BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - Horse training requires working seven days a week, but Tuesday was not a typical work day for Michael Matz. He had to do what he always does, coordinate grooms and hot walkers and exercise riders and assistants to get his 67 horses to and from the track at the Palm Meadows training center. But this was the first day since Barbaro, the colt Matz trained to win last year's Kentucky Derby, was euthanized.

"It's hardest when I think and talk about it," Matz said during a break in training at his barn Tuesday morning. "If I'm working, I don't have it on my mind. It's better to keep going."

"Poor old Michael, he hasn't slept in months," Grae Kennedy, one of Matz's assistants, said while his boss was on the racetrack supervising a set of horses. "You know what Michael's like. He's a sensitive guy."

Two cars parked outside Matz's barn had bumper stickers that read "Go Barbaro." The tack room at Matz's barn had a pair of bouquets on his desk. A copy of Wednesday's Daily Racing Form, with Barbaro's obituary on the cover, sat on his desk. An occasional visitor happened by to offer condolences. It all seemed so incongruous to the photo above and to the right of Matz's desk, which showed Barbaro crossing the wire in the Derby, with all four feet off the ground.

"I guess I just have to look at it that I was lucky enough to have had him once," Matz said.

"I'll just have to go out and find another one. But that'll be pretty darn hard. There's no telling how good he could have been."

Matz, 56, has been based at Palm Meadows since November. He spends half the year here, half at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland. Fair Hill is a short ride from the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, where Barbaro spent the last 8 1/2 months. Matz said he flew to Maryland to visit Barbaro on Jan. 13. It turned out to be the last time he saw Barbaro.

"He did so well so quickly after the operation, and then in the beginning of November there was talk about getting him out of the hospital," Matz said. "And then it all went so bad so quick."

"We all knew this could happen, but we hoped it never would," said Peter Brette, another Matz assistant who was Barbaro's exercise rider. "Unfortunately, no one ever saw how good he really could be. We always had said that the Derby was going to be the beginning of him. But it wasn't meant to be."

Matz said he got a call early Monday morning from Gretchen Jackson, who owned Barbaro with her husband, Roy.

"She usually doesn't call that early. She was pretty upset," Matz said.

Two subsequent calls from Dr. Dean Richardson at New Bolton confirmed Matz's worst fears, that Barbaro's condition had deteriorated to the point where he would need to be euthanized.

"Everybody tried their hardest," Matz said.

Matz said he watched a televised press conference Monday afternoon with Richardson and the Jacksons.

"It looked like they handled it really well," he said. "I don't know if I could have done it."

Matz did, however, have to explain the situation to his two youngest children, Alex and Lucy.

"They wanted to know why we couldn't do this, couldn't do that," he said. "They just didn't understand all the ramifications."

Matz was overwhelmed and gratified by the outpouring of emotion directed toward Barbaro from the general public. Although the colt won every one of his races before suffering his catastrophic injuries in the Preakness, his stellar racetrack accomplishments were dwarfed in recent months by his ongoing battle to survive.

"Maybe this was bigger than the Triple Crown," Matz said. "It's hard to say."

Of the 67 horses in Matz's barn, he has a half-brother to Barbaro named Man in Havana, 3, who is by Quiet American. Waiting in the wings is a yearling full brother to Barbaro who has yet to be named. Matz also trains Round Pond, who won the Breeders' Cup Distaff and is about a month away from her first start of the year. As good as some of those horses are, or may be, it would be trite to say they will replace Barbaro. Though Barbaro had physically left Matz's barn the evening of May 20, the emotional void became more pronounced Monday.

"I've just got to remember the good things we had and he did," Matz said. "I guess things happen for a reason. But sometimes you don't know what that reason is. We just have to group ourselves together and try to go on."