Kentucky Derby contender: Is this the new Barbaro?

Story highlights

  • U.S. horse trainer Michael Matz seeking to win his second Kentucky Derby on Saturday
  • Matz worked with Barbaro, who became a star by winning the 132nd edition in 2006
  • The colt was put down after shattering his hind leg at the Preakness Stakes that year
  • Matz has high hopes for Union Rags in the prestigious race at Churchill Downs

Michael Matz has spent a lifetime working with horses -- first as a member of the U.S. showjumping team that won the silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and more recently as a trainer of racehorses. But he will always be remembered for just one: Barbaro.

The bay colt with the white star on his forehead and bullet-like speed captured the hearts of the American public when he won the Kentucky Derby by seven lengths in 2006 -- but then dramatically broke down in the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.

"I think he had that presence about him," says Matz, his eyes tearing up as he remembers the popular champion.

Those who were at Kentucky's Churchill Downs that May day in 2006 would have been forgiven for thinking that they had just witnessed the second coming of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat as Barbaro took control of the race coming off the last bend.

"And here comes Barbaro!" roared the track announcer as 120,000 people got to their feet to cheer him home.

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"The jock (Edgar Prado) never hit him with the whip," Matz recalls. "He was still going as he crossed the finish line. And that's when I thought we could have a Triple Crown winner."

The holy grail of horse racing was always going to be a big ask. Made up of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, only 11 horses have ever completed the treble, and the most recent of these was Affirmed back in 1978. But the omens seemed to be in Barbaro's favor as the day of the Preakness dawned.

    Matze's assistant Peter Brette galloped him that morning -- "and he couldn't have galloped any more beautifully."

    "They're going to have to have wings to catch this horse today," Brette told his boss.

    But then Barbaro did something he had never done before. After loading into stall six, the horse burst through the gate before the starter's bell, slamming into the mechanical doors with enough power to force them open.

    Although he was checked over by a vet and eventually reloaded, in many ways Barbaro's race was over before it began.

    Breaking from the starting gates for the second time that day, he ran just a few hundred meters before tragedy struck.

    Nobody knows for certain what caused it; the most likely explanation is a simple misstep. Just one bad stride was enough to shatter his hind leg in more than 20 places.

    Millions watched as Barbaro pawed the ground uncomprehendingly, his dislocated back hoof dangling uselessly behind him. Although efforts were made to save the leg with pioneering surgery, Barbaro eventually had to be put down.

    But now, six years after Barbaro captivated the racing world with his electrifying Kentucky Derby win, Matz is back at Churchill Downs with another bay colt, Union Rags.

    "In some ways they're similar -- they're both very competitive" the 61-year-old says. "Union Rags has a little bit more white on his face than Barbaro did but they're both elegant-looking horses.

    "He's big, he's strong, he's fast -- so far I haven't found any faults in him. I think he's got a good chance."

    Brette rides the horse every day, and he agrees that they could have a second Barbaro on their hands. "Everything just comes easily to him. He's a pleasure to ride."

    Union Rags is among the hot favorites for Saturday's race. And few would begrudge Matz the fairytale ending he never had with Barbaro.

    "As a trainer that's what we live for. To know that you had one horse that could win the Kentucky Derby and possibly two -- it's a great feeling."