10/30/2006 1:00AM

Still in wonder of what could've been

Sabina Louise Pierce/University of Pennsylvania
Trainer Michael Matz, with Barbaro at New Bolton Center, will send Round Pond in the Distaff

While he attends to his string of horses, however, Matz's thoughts never stray too far from the horse standing in a stall 19 miles down the road at the University of Pennsylvania's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. It has been a little more than five months since Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro suffered a catastrophic injury to his right hind leg in the early stages of the Preakness at Pimlico, and for now, he is continuing to win his fight for survival.

Less than two weeks ago, as Matz prepared to ship five horses from Fair Hill to Kentucky - including the filly Round Pond, who is running in Saturday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs - Matz couldn't help think aloud what it would have been like if Barbaro had been able to get on that van.

"It sure would have been nice having this horse running in the Classic or, who knows, running in Europe next year," Matz said. "It's just such a shame. Maybe it's a bigger thing what he's done, bringing the racing public together - not just the racing public, but people in general."

The interest in Barbaro remains intense. There are still signs of encouragement on the fence posts at the New Bolton Center. One reads, "Grow Hoof Grow." Another reads, "Believe in Barbaro."

Large get-well cards from tracks such as Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, signed by thousands of racing fans during the summer, adorn the lobby of the hospital. Outside Barbaro's stall in the intensive care unit of New Bolton, there are plenty of cards and other paraphernalia. In addition to the hand-written cards from school-kids from as far away as Arizona, there is a mini-statue of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals.

Perhaps the most interesting gift Barbaro has received is a box of holy water from the River Jordan, sent by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum and his wife. Sheikh Mohammed owns Bernardini, whose victories in the Preakness, Jim Dandy, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup have vaulted him past Barbaro in the race for champion 3-year-old and potentially Horse of the Year.

"It's sort of sad every time I see the races that Bernardini is in," Matz said. "Wouldn't that have been a nice rivalry between the two? Whether [Barbaro] was better or whether he wasn't, that's what makes a good conversation or a good rivalry between the two. That, to me, would have been a heck of a lot of fun."

Barbaro looks surprisingly good for a horse who can hardly walk. He has put on weight - he now weights over 1,100 pounds - but he is not fat. He still has some muscle definition throughout. Aside from his right hind leg and left hind foot, the only other part of Barbaro's body that is disfigured is his left shoulder, which had been blistered following hours on the operating table.

Aside from a summer trip to Saratoga, and this trip to Kentucky, Matz has visited Barbaro on a daily basis. Before he goes home following training hours, Matz makes the 25-minute drive to Kennett Square, Pa., and often takes Barbaro outside to graze and stand in the sun for 30 minutes. Dr. Dean Richardson, the surgeon who operated on Barbaro's shattered right hind leg May 21, usually takes Barbaro out for another 30 minutes later in the day, Matz said.

Matz will sometimes change the bandages on Barbaro's healthy front legs, brush his coat, and clean up his stall.

"He's done an awful lot for me, this is the least I can do for him," Matz said following a recent visit with Barbaro. "I live 10 minutes from here. The kids go to school right alongside of here. [One day], I was grazing him and the school bus went by, and all the school kids yelled out for Barbaro."

Barbaro's right hind leg is still in a fiberglass cast, one that has been changed multiple times the last few months. His left hind foot, which developed the often-fatal disease laminitis, has a boot on it and is encased by electrical tape.

"There's a spot on the bottom of his toe, right on the tip of his toe, that is not healed yet," Matz said. "That's always the last thing to get healed. If we wouldn't have had the problem with his left hind foot, I think he would have been out of the cast by now."

Matz said he hopes this cast is the last one Barbaro has to wear. With the winter months coming, there has been some talk about moving Barbaro to warmer climate, though no decision has been made.

The New Bolton Center has sent out twice-monthly updates on Barbaro, and in them Richardson remains cautiously optimistic about Barbaro's progress. The goal of all the medical attention Barbaro receives is to, first, save his life, and secondly, enable him to become a stallion a year or two from now.

"I'm always optimistic about him, whether it's his racing career or whether it's here," Matz said, "and I hope someday he can stand as a stallion and produce some young horses,"

Matz admits that he was not able to fully celebrate Barbaro's victory in the Kentucky Derby. He said he hopes he can get back to the Derby.

"I guess, once you have one as good as him you keep looking for the next one," Matz said. "I got some very nice notes from people, and I look at it now that if I never get another good horse like this, that at least I had this one once.

"Dan Hendricks was real nice," he said, referring to the trainer of Brother Derek. "He certainly has gone through a lot himself, and he said, whatever happens, just remember that you won the Derby."

Matz won the Derby with his first starter in the race. On Saturday, he will be making his first appearance in the Breeders' Cup when he saddles Round Pond in the Distaff.

Matz took over the training of Round Pond from John Servis in late spring and had to work on her feet to get her to the races. On Aug. 27, Round Pond was beaten a head by Promenade Girl in the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park. Another foot issue arose that forced Round Pond to miss some training time leading up to the Grade 1 Beldame at Belmont, where she finished third, beaten seven lengths by Fleet Indian.

Matz used glue-on shoes on Round Pond for the Beldame and will use them again in the Breeders' Cup. Because Round Pond has thinly soled feet, the nails from a regular-shoe sometimes pinched her. The glue-ons help to elevate the sole higher off the ground.

On Sunday, at Keeneland, Round Pond worked five furlongs in a solid 59 seconds. Later that day, she vanned over to Churchill Downs, where she walked Monday and was to return to training Tuesday.

"I'm looking forward to it," Matz said. "I think Round Pond, knowing how she came into the last race, I think she has a shot. We got beat seven lengths by the favorite in the race, and I think if everything's right I know she can improve. Whether she can make up seven lengths, I don't know. I know one thing, she'll try her heart out."