04/07/2008 11:00PM

Winding road for Matz and Visionaire


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Michael Matz has been down this road before. Well, not this road, exactly, but one he hopes will lead again to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Matz, who earned renown two years ago as the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, has taken a completely different Derby route this time with Visionaire, a Grand Slam colt making his final pre-Derby start Saturday in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Whereas Barbaro campaigned for the Derby exclusively in Florida, Visionaire has been all over the map. After a Jan. 4 allowance victory at Gulfstream, the colt was third behind Pyro in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds, then was up in the final jump to win the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

Matz wound up picking the Grade 1 Blue Grass for Visionaire as a matter of circumstance. Given a choice, the 57-year-old trainer would have preferred to stay put all winter again in Florida, where he is based at the Palm Meadows training center, but minutes after the colt won the January allowance by 5 1/2 lengths, Matz said the revised stakes schedule for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream left him few local options. By shipping to New Orleans, then New York, and now Kentucky, "we were just trying to find the best spots for him," said Matz.

Matz said he had considered running Visionaire in the Illinois Derby last weekend because it would have given him four weeks, instead of three, leading into the Kentucky Derby, but he didn't want to ship the horse again.

"He's stabled here at Keeneland, and we'll be here until the Kentucky Derby," Matz said. "I'm satisfied with that."

Visionaire originally was bought for $300,000 as a yearling at Saratoga by Vision Sales LLC, a pinhooking company owned in partnership by Brandon Perry of Lexington. The colt then was entered as a 2-year-old at the February sales at Calder last year, but was found to have a knee chip, and surgery followed. Ultimately, Vision Racing LLC, a related company in which Perry is a managing member, bought the colt for $220,000 from Vision Sales at the Ocala Breeders' Sales auction last June.

In the winner's circle after the Gulfstream race, Matz seemed somewhat surprised the colt had won as easily as he had, noting that many prospects in that race had been highly touted. In fact, the effort was so impressive that Team Valor International, the well-established syndicate run by Barry Irwin, was moved to buy a 51 percent interest in the colt, with Vision Racing retaining the remainder.

Matz conceded Tuesday that Visionaire "probably is an overachiever," saying the colt is not a good work horse.

"He wants to please you in the mornings, and he's a delight to train," Matz said. "It may be that he just has that much ability and he does what he has to do. His races have been very consistent."

Visionaire figures as perhaps the third choice, behind Pyro and Cool Coal Man, in the 84th Blue Grass, for which entries were to be drawn Wednesday. The other confirmed starters are Cowboy Cal, Halo Najib, Kentucky Bear, Medjool, and Miner's Claim, while Big Truck and Monba are possible. Coverage of the Blue Grass will air on TVG and ESPN.

Visionaire will be ridden by Jose Lezcano, who has been aboard in each of the last three starts.

Perry said Visionaire needs one more big race to punch his ticket to the Derby.

"Although everybody likes to talk about the Derby and all that, we're not going unless we have a shot at doing well," he said. "We don't have to win Saturday to move on, but obviously the colt will have to show he belongs. We've really believed in the colt all along, so this has all been extremely gratifying."

For Matz, another run at the Derby will bring the inevitable comparisons of Visionaire to Barbaro, whose legendary status was attained not only through his feats on the racetrack, but in his valiant struggle to survive during the eight months that followed his breakdown in the 2006 Preakness. Barbaro was euthanized in January 2007.

Asked whether he has resigned himself to never having another "once in a lifetime" horse such as Barbaro, Matz said: "Obviously all trainers are looking for that horse to come along. I was lucky enough to have one."

Then he added with a laugh, "But that's not going to stop me looking for another one."