Chelokee has potential, but no Derby invite

Posted: April 04, 2007

Michael Matz, the trainer of last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, believes he has a 3-year-old capable of contending in this year's Derby. The problem: Matz doesn't believe his horse, Chelokee, will be able to get in the Derby.

Matz said that Chelokee will be shipped from his winter headquarters in Florida to Keeneland in the next week or so. Matz plans to be ready to run him in the Kentucky Derby if he gets in the field.

Chelokee's third-place finish in Saturday's Florida Derby, after a really tough trip, earned him $100,000, but this was the horse's first graded stake, and $100,000 typically isn't enough to crack the 20-horse Derby field.

"It's unfortunate," Matz said this week in a telephone interview.

If the Derby field were put together by a selection committee, Chelokee would be in. He's popping up in a lot of Derby Watch top-10 lists now. But that's not how it works. Graded-stakes earnings are everything. Finishing first or second in the Florida Derby would have easily given Chelokee enough earnings to qualify. Matz isn't keen on trying to get more earnings in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes, just two weeks before the Derby. Matz said he would consider running in that race, but thinks three races in five weeks would be too much, so if that scenario plays out, Matz talked about the possibility of Chelokee going to the Preakness.

The disappointment is that Chelokee and jockey Ramon Dominguez got stuck along the rail before getting up for third in the Florida Derby.

"When I talked to Ramon, he said: 'You had the best horse in the race.' I think I did. It just worked out, it didn't end up in the results," Matz said. "These things happen. Ramon was just as mad as anybody when he got off there. It does get us very excited that we have a prospect who could do something. He [Chelokee] has an unbelievable mind. He's cool as a cucumber. If he improves a little bit off the last race . . . "

Almost from the start, the path hasn't been smooth. Matz mentioned that everything went right on the road to the Derby last year with Barbaro.

"Absolutely no setbacks," Matz said of that path to the Derby, which Barbaro won by 61/2 lengths.

But this time: "It just didn't line up right," Matz said.

That began early, he said. Right after Chelokee broke his maiden by 131/4 lengths at Delaware Park, Matz pointed him toward a second race at Delaware Park, but the race didn't fill. Matz entered Chelokee in a race at Laurel.

"There was a wind storm that day," Matz said. "To be honest, I was nervous putting him on the trailer going down. I scratched him."

There also were some physical problems that set him back a bit this year. And now in two straight races at Gulfstream, Chelokee was practically stopped dead before finding a path and finishing strong, including a victory in an allowance race on March 3. Matz thinks Chelokee can be a factor in Triple Crown races. He wouldn't try to get in the Derby just to be there, he said.

"If I said I didn't want to get back to the Derby, I'd be lying," Matz said. "On the other hand, I want to be able to go there and say I have a chance. I do think if I get a chance, I think he can get a mile and a quarter."

Before proving he could man-handle a field at that distance, Barbaro had shown up at the Derby undefeated.

"This one just happened a different way," Matz said. "If he's not supposed to get in, there's a lot of races afterward."

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or


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