Back at Derby with 20-1 colt Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer, is with Visionaire now.

Posted: May 02, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For Michael Matz, any trip from his home in Chester County down here to Churchill Downs calls for a journey down memory lane. This year, Matz is back at Barn 42, two years after Barbaro electrified the grounds on the first Saturday in May.

But this year's trip is far more than revisiting past glories. Yesterday, Matz talked about how training another horse into the Kentucky Derby is a great thrill. This time, his horse is a come-from-behind colt named Visionaire, a 20-1 shot.

"You know, at least I'm part of it," Matz said yesterday morning outside his barn after Visionaire came back from the track. "At least I got back a second time, whether it's good or bad."

By that, he means win or lose.

"The beginning of the year, when he broke his maiden, I never thought he'd be in the Derby," Matz said of Visionaire.

This horse isn't owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Barbaro's owners, although it could have been. Right after Visionaire finished second at Delaware Park and then broke his maiden at Laurel in November, Matz was told by Visionaire's owners, the Vision Racing team out of Florida, that the horse was for sale, for $800,000. Bob Baffert almost bought the horse for some clients, but backed out. While that was going on, Matz called the Jacksons, who asked for his opinion.

"I don't know," Matz remembered telling them. "He's a Grand Slam" - referring to Visionaire's sire, who doesn't typically produce horses that get Classic distances. "He's got a chip in his knee already. He's [only] run two races. I don't know."

Matz said he owed the Jacksons at least the opportunity to buy the horse.

"As good as they've been to me, if I have something in the barn, I should offer it to them," he said.

The Jacksons passed. Nobody spends $800,000 on every horse that breaks his maiden.

"That's the way it goes," Roy Jackson said yesterday, in town to announce that an artist, equine sculptor Alexa King, had been selected for a sculpture of Barbaro that will be "the focal point" of the horse's burial site just outside Gate 1 of Churchill Downs next year.

Matz also was at the announcement. He understands that he will always be "the trainer of Barbaro," as he was introduced yesterday by a Churchill official to some friends just after the announcement. He doesn't shy away from that, saying of the horse that died of laminitis eight months after his breakdown at the 2006 Preakness Stakes: "He was very good to us."

Outside the barn, most questions are about Visionaire. Matz knows the colt's pedigree makes anybody question whether he will get the required 10 furlongs.

"But I think that's a nice thing about this horse - you can't judge their heart," Matz said. "He has a big heart. Whether he's good enough, who knows? But stranger things have happened. If he gets through in a clean trip - that's always the question. Barbaro always put himself in a spot where if he's good enough - and he obviously was good enough."

Although he had a tough outside trip, Visionaire ran the fastest closing furlong at the Blue Grass Stakes, his last Derby prep, which got a lot more notice than his fifth-place finish.

Matz talked about how, earlier this year, he really couldn't tell which of two 3-year-old colts in his barn, Visionaire or Ready Set, owned by the Jacksons, was the better prospect.

"They always worked together and worked real good," Matz said. "I wasn't sure which horse was the best."

Eventually, Visionaire's sale price went up. After the horse convincingly won an allowance race at Gulfstream, Team Valor International, operated by Barry Irwin, bought a 51 percent interest. After that, the horse finished third behind Derby horses Pyro and Z Fortune in the Risen Star, and won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in the fog on a sloppy track.

"I think he's going to make a good account of himself," said Matz, declining to oversell his horse. "If he runs in the top five, I'll be happy."

And if lightning strikes for Matz again, and press hordes again descend on his barn at the Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton, Md.?

"They'd be more than welcomed," Matz said with a smile. "I'd give them coffee when they come in."

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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