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Saint Marden can put Matz on map
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Although his record as a Thoroughbred trainer does not yet reflect it, Michael Matz knows all about the big time.
Matz, 51, began training about five years ago, but only after he retired from a spectacular career as one of the most accomplished equestrian riders in North America. Representing the U.S., he participated in the Olympics three times, the Pan American games four times, and the World Championships three times.
With an innate fondness for horses, it was not entirely unpredictable that Matz eventually would turn to racing, especially since it was, he said, "always something that I had thought about doing."
Now Matz, who oversees a 45-horse stable split between Palm Beach Downs and an Ocala training center, is trying to break into the upper echelon of his new profession. An opportunity to make a major impact arises Saturday, when Matz will be at Gulfstream Park to saddle Saint Marden in the signature event of the inaugural Sunshine Millions series, the $1 million Classic.
Saint Marden, a 4-year-old Florida-bred by Saint Ballado, has been a winner in 4 of 7 starts, including the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct in his most recent start in October. Matz believes the Classic is a chance for Saint Marden to prove that his dismal eighth-place finish in the Travers in August - his only other major test - was likely because of a sloppy track.
"The sloppy track is all I ever came up with," said Matz. "He's been fine ever since. I know we're coming off a layoff and stuff like that, but he's been working fine. He hasn't done anything great, and he hasn't done anything bad. All I know is he has a lot of heart, and we're hoping he'll make a much better impression Saturday."
Not only is the 1 1/8-mile Classic the richest race in the Sunshine Millions, but it probably is the deepest, too. Saint Marden figures as maybe fourth or fifth choice in a full field of 12 headed by such accomplished runners as Best of the Rest, Continental Red, The Judge Sez Who, and Booklet.
The eight-race Sunshine Millions is a $3.6 million series for Florida- and California-breds. Four races will be run at Gulfstream and four at Santa Anita.
Humorous Lady out to restore rep
ARCADIA, Calif. - Humorous Lady needs a win in the Sunshine Millions Oaks to restore her battered reputation.
Following an eye-catching victory in the Grade 2 Astarita Stakes at Belmont Park last October, Humorous Lady has been well beaten in her last two starts - the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Arlington Park, and the fillies division of the California Breeders' Champion Stakes.
For Saturday's Oaks, trainer Mike Smith has removed Humorous Lady's blinkers. It will be the first time she has raced without them in her career, which includes three stakes wins.
Humorous Lady is expected to show her customary speed, which gives Smith concern about the seven-furlong distance.
"If it were six furlongs, I'd say write her down," he said. "The seven-eighths is a tough race. I think six and a half is as far as a sprinter wants to go."
Humorous Lady led in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes on Dec. 27, but faded from contention in early stretch after a rough start. Smith is hoping for a better start in the Oaks, in which Humorous Lady has drawn post 2 in a field of 12.
"Last time, she broke so hard that the outside horse knocked into her and forced her into the inside horse," he said. "She gave them six lengths and rushed up. That's hard to do."
Men's Exclusive to 'hit the board'
ARCADIA, Calif. - The Sunshine Millions Sprint at Santa Anita may be the first race in the final season of racing for the 10-year-old Men's Exclusive.
A winner of 10 of 42 starts and $1,332,828, Men's Exclusive will be a longshot in the Sprint, which is led by the California-bred Debonair Joe, the winner of the Malibu and Vernon Underwood Stakes in December, and Echo Eddie, who won the Dayjur Handicap last month at Hollywood Park.
Trainer Wesley Ward said that a combination of factors could lead to Men's Exclusive's retirement, but that the horse should not be counted out of this weekend's race.
"As soon as he tips the other way, or the owner can't come out to enjoy the horse, we'll retire him," Ward said.
Owner Gene Reed is 82 and may attend Saturday's race, Ward said. Either way, the trainer is predicting a big effort from his horse.
"He'll hit the board for sure," Ward said. "The big thing is to run him when he's right, but sometimes you have to run when the race is there. This race is coming up at the right time."
Who's Number One?
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Scott Savin of Gulfstream and Jack Liebau Jr. of Santa Anita, president and general managers of their respective tracks, had some good-natured fun during the weekly teleconference conducted Tuesday by the NTRA.
Both men were threatening to bet whatever the other was willing to wager on whether Florida or California horses would fare better in the Sunshine Millions competition.
Liebau accused Savin of devising a simplistic scoring schedule that does not award points for fourth- or fifth-place finishes because the California contingent appears to have more depth than Florida.
Savin responded by saying that he "had to keep it simple for the California people," and thus came up with a system of five points for a win, three points for a second, and one point for a third.
Liebau mentioned that while California was sending 18 horses to race at Gulfstream, "Scott only sent us five," an obvious edge for California.
Both men spoke about how the results of the inaugural Great State Challenge last month in Houston served to heighten awareness of how the Florida and California breeding programs might now be on a similar level with Kentucky, which long has been regarded as the world's leader. In the six-race Great State series, horses bred in California and Florida won two races each, while the other two races were won by a Kentucky-bred and a Maryland-bred.
"Maybe that means Kentucky is third-best," said Savin.
"Well, I don't know if they're third," said Liebau, taking the jab even deeper. "But they're certainly behind Florida and California."
- reported in Florida by Marty McGee and in California by Steve Andersen