03/29/2006 1:00AM

Treading lightly to big dance

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Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTOS
Barbaro, with Peter Brett up (right), works out at Palm Meadows for his Florida Derby start.

Michael Matz has been training racehorses for less than 10 years. On that, he's relatively inexperienced. But he brings a lifetime of top-tier horsemanship to the endeavor, having been an Olympic-class show jumper for two decades.

Matz rode in the Olympics for the first time at Montreal in 1976. A lesson learned that year, Matz said, is what has compelled him to map out a decidedly nontraditional route to the Kentucky Derby with his unbeaten colt Barbaro, who will be favored on Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

"We were fighting to see who would make the last spot on the team," Matz recalled of the 1976 Olympics. "I did ride, but I had no horse left. I said then that when I competed in the future, I wanted to have something left for the main competition. I didn't just want to get there."

Matz, 55, went on to a decorated career as a show jumper. He was the American Grand Prix Association Rider of the Year in 1981 and 1984. He earned a silver medal with the United States Olympic team in 1996. And he carried the flag for the U.S. in the closing ceremonies at those Atlanta games.

Matz then turned to training racehorses. His biggest victory to date came in the 2004 Arlington Million, when Kicken Kris was placed first on the disqualification of Powerscourt. Barbaro, though, gives Matz his first opportunity to have a top contender in the Kentucky Derby.

"When I was showing horses, I wanted to ride in the World Championships or the Olympic Games," Matz said. "I've never had a horse of this quality. You ask me if I'm nervous? I don't know if I'm nervous, but it sure is exciting."

In training Barbaro, Matz is sticking to the vow he made in Montreal.

The Florida Derby will be Barbaro's final prep for the May 6 Kentucky Derby. It will come five weeks before the Derby. The last horse to win the Derby off a five-week layoff was Needles - in 1956, 50 years ago. But even more daring is that Barbaro will have had just one race, the Florida Derby, between Feb. 4, when he won the Holy Bull Stakes, and the Kentucky Derby. That's one race in 13 weeks.

If Barbaro and Matz pull this off, Matz just might rewrite the rules on preparing a horse for the Derby.

To be sure, the rules are in flux. There are some long-term trends that have stood the test of time. No horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. No horse has won the Derby with four lifetime starts or fewer since Exterminator in 1918. No horse has won the Derby with just two prep races as a 3-year-old since Sunny's Halo in 1983.

But the craft of training racehorses has been undergoing constant change. Runners, especially those who race at the highest level, make fewer starts per year and, in turn, have more time between those starts. From 1981 through 1984, there was at least one starter in each of those four Derbies who already had raced at least 17 times. The horses in the 1965 Derby had made, on average, 16.4 starts going into the race. The field in the 1985 Derby averaged just 8.9 starts. Last year's Derby field had raced, on average, a mere 6.6 times before the Derby.

Barbaro has raced four times, beginning in October. The Florida Derby will be his third start this calendar year. He won the Tropical Park Derby at Calder on Jan. 1.

"He will have had three races in Florida," Matz said. "I think that's enough. He will have had eight weeks going into the Florida Derby, and then he'll go into the Kentucky Derby off five weeks. That should suit him perfectly.

"Since Barbaro started late in the season, we wanted to space his races out," Matz said. "He's been in Florida since November. He hasn't had to travel around. He's a fresh horse."

In other Derby developments:

* Eleven were entered Wednesday in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, with Barbaro landing post 10. Other members of the Derby Watch top 25 in the Florida Derby are Flashy Bull, Sharp Humor, and Sunriver.

* The unbeaten Strong Contender will make his next start in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 15, trainer John T. Ward Jr. said. Strong Contender was excluded from last week's Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park because of insufficient earnings.

Edgar Prado will ride Strong Contender in the Blue Grass. Prado had also been riding First Samurai, another colt pointing for the Blue Grass. Rafael Bejarano will replace Prado on First Samurai.

Ward said Strong Contender, who worked Tuesday morning at Gulfstream Park, would work once more in Florida before leaving late next week for Kentucky. The Blue Grass will be Strong Contender's stakes debut, and his last prep for the Kentucky Derby.

* Deputy Glitters, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, will have his final Derby prep in the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 8, trainer Tom Albertrani said. The Blue Grass had also been under consideration. Albertrani said he preferred the spacing of the Wood, which is four weeks before the Derby. The Blue Grass is three weeks before the Derby.

* Sweetnorthernsaint is being pointed to the Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on April 8, rather than the Wood, trainer Michael Trombetta said.

"I want to go in the easier of the two," Trombetta said.

* Fourteen 3-year-olds were made eligible to the Triple Crown at a cost of $6,000 each by the March 25 deadline for late nominations, it was announced Wednesday.

Chief among the latecomers are Cause to Believe, the Jerry Hollendorfer colt pointed to the Illinois Derby, and With a City, longshot winner of last weekend's Lane's End Stakes. With a City's connections also nominated Devilofarush, who is expected to run in the Illinois Derby.

The late nominations also include High Blues and Sam's Ace, both entered in the Florida Derby. The others are Double Galore, Kellers Church Rd., Malameeze, Mister Triester, Nob Hill Deelite, Oh So Awesome, Sayhellotolarry, Showing Up, and Where's That Tiger.