05/16/2006 12:00AM

Racing's hub - where Barbaro is

Barbaro gallops 1 1/2 miles under exercise rider Peter Brette on Tuesday at Fair Hill training center. He will leave for Pimlico on Friday afternoon.

FAIR HILL, Md. - Speculation periodically arises about what would happen if Maryland lost the Preakness. And by the deserted look of the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course this week, you might think this was the year it happened: As of early Tuesday afternoon, not one of the nine probable starters for the 131st Preakness was on the grounds.

The attention that normally centers on Pimlico in the days before the Preakness instead was an hour's drive to the north at the Fair Hill training center, where the Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, was sent through his routine paces Tuesday morning by trainer Michael Matz. With Barbaro appearing to thrive amid the peaceful setting, Matz was his usual composed and sublimely confident self when he addressed perhaps three dozen media members as a near-noon sun finally lent welcome warmth to what had been a chilly morning.

"I couldn't ask for the horse to be doing any better," said Matz. "He's doing very well right now."

Barbaro, with regular exercise rider Peter Brette aboard, was led onto the one-mile dirt track at about 10:10 a.m. by Matz, astride his stable pony. After Barbaro stood statue-like for several minutes, both horses and riders began a half-mile jog over to the far side of the track, from where Matz turned Barbaro and Brette loose. From there, it was a strong 1 1/2-mile gallop, nearly at a two-minute clip, after which Barbaro was soon back at the barn to cool out, bathe, and graze.

At about 11:15, Matz emerged from the barn and was quickly engulfed by cameras and notebooks, a rare scene indeed at Fair Hill. After extolling the obvious virtues of being stabled in such an idyllic setting, Matz answered a battery of questions, all of which he had been asked before - some to exhaustion. Perhaps the most pertinent topic was the logistics of leaving Fair Hill for Pimlico, which Matz said he would prefer to occur early Saturday, but instead will have to happen Friday afternoon. In his five starts prior to the Derby, Barbaro made a short van ride from a training facility to a racetrack.

"He's used to that," said Matz, "but they told us we'd have to be there by 6 a.m. Saturday to make sure we didn't have problems with traffic and the like. I'd prefer to go on race morning, but I guess we have to give up a little bit, too."

Matz a local celebrity

Whatever anonymity trainer Michael Matz had before the Kentucky Derby is long gone. Between winning the race with Barbaro and having the tale of his heroics in a plane crash in 1989 recounted repeatedly in newspapers and on television, Matz has become a recognizable figure, most notably in the area near the Fair Hill training center in northern Maryland, where he is based.

A few days ago, while purchasing some food at a local pizzeria, the owner waved off Matz's attempt to pay for his meal.

"Take the sandwich, it's on us," he was told. "Just get us a win picture from the Derby."

While buying gas, a woman filling her car at an adjacent pump walked over and said, "Aren't you Barbaro's trainer?"

Fair Hill does not have a guard shack, so visitors can drive right in - or roll up in a horse-drawn carriage.

"There were 10 Amish here the other day," Matz said. "They were outside the barn and said, 'We thought we'd see the champ.'

"It's terrific that people want to come by," he said. "But it amazes people that some people try to walk right in the barn. I wish they'd at least ask first."

Some go now, some go later

The Derby winner is practically obligated to run back in the Preakness. But that's about it. The likes of Bluegrass Cat and Steppenwolfer are bypassing the Preakness in order to await the Belmont Stakes on June 10. By contrast, Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint are running in the Preakness, but there is doubt over whether they will move on to the Belmont, regardless of what happens Saturday.

Should Barbaro win on Saturday, it's conceivable that he will be the only horse in this year's Triple Crown who runs in all three races.

"There's so many options with a 3-year-old," said Mike Trombetta, who trains Sweetnorthernsaint. "Running back in two weeks is quick, but waiting to go five weeks to go a mile and a half is kind of freaky, too."

- additional reporting by Jay Privman