Overall Horseman Of The Year: Michael Matz

Feb 18, 2007 - 10:00 PM
Photo by Horsephotos.com.

In just a split second—the time it took for Barbaro to take that one bad step in the 2006 Preakness Stakes (Md.)—life for Michael Matz was forever altered. “Barbaro’s injury changed me as a horseman,” said Matz simply. “This is an incredibly humbling business. I went from having the best 3-year-old in the country to trying to save the best 3-year-old in the country.”

Through his life as a horseman, Matz knows all about triumph and tragedy. Prior to his career training Thoroughbreds, Matz was one of the world’s leading show jumping riders, with Olympic and Pan Am Games medals to his credit and victory in the FEI World Cup Finals.

Barbaro’s story, another page-turning chapter in Matz’s life, is one that all horsemen fear, especially those in demanding sports such as racing, steeplechasing and upper-level eventing. For these elite equine athletes, brilliant success and tragic failure are often heartbreaking compatriots.

Now, nine months after Barbaro’s injury, Matz continues on training other horses, although Barbaro is constantly on his mind as the colt continues to fight for his life. And it’s a vigil that millions of people have followed through the extensive media coverage, with Matz and Barbaro’s owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and the staff at the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsyl-vania where he’s been hospitalized since the injury.

“The support this horse has generated is overwhelming,” said Matz. “Everybody wanted to help–well-wishers sent cards and prayed. The public really rooted for this horse in so many ways.”

Barbaro became a household name–especially to Thoroughbred racing fans–when he entered the Kentucky Derby as an undefeated favorite. Even though the racing press questioned Matz’s training schedule, in which Barbaro started in the Derby after an uncommon five-week layoff and just one prep race in the previous 13 weeks, the bay colt cruised to an impressive victory.

Racing columnists and reporters then began touting Barbaro as the next great superstar–his was the widest margin of victory in the Derby since Assault won the 1946 running by 8 lengths. They compared Barbaro to the legendary Secretariat in his domination of his peers, and predicted a Triple Crown romp even though it had been 28 years since Affirmed had become just the 11th horse to claim the elusive Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont (N.Y.).

After victory in the Derby and throughout the media blitz that followed, Matz remained quietly optimistic, although as he recalls now, the two weeks between the races went like a blur. He focused on Barbaro’s program and continued with the long-range plan he and assistant trainer Peter Brette had developed for the colt’s season.

“Everything happened so fast. Thinking back now, I didn’t reflect on what he did and how great a horse he could have been,” contemplated Matz. “Gretchen feels the same way too. She said, ‘We didn’t have a chance to enjoy it. Let’s do it again.’ “

A Love Of Thoroughbreds

Matz began training race horses part time in 1998 while he concluded his show jumping career. At the time, he was aiming Iron Spring Farm’s talented stallion Judgement for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But when their performance in the selection trials didn’t qualify them for the team, Matz took it as an opportune time to retire from the sport he’d starred in for nearly three decades.

“Those last few years I was doing both and gradually cut down on the show horses,” said Matz. “It was a little difficult at the time, but I had a commitment to ride in the trials, and I kept that commitment.”

Even though Matz left show jumping at 49, an age when many riders are still going strong, there really weren’t many more major titles in the world he had yet to win. He’d ridden in three Olympics (earning team silver in 1996 in Atlanta), had multiple Pan Am Games appearances to his credit with five gold medals and three bronze medals, and he’d won the 1981 FEI World Cup Final.

However, Matz didn’t begin his connection with horses until he was almost 15, when a neighbor invited him to go riding. Then, one thing led to another and Matz became immersed in the sport, starting as a groom and working his way up the ladder.

He began his international show jumping career at age 21 when he forged a strong bond with a U.S.-bred Thoroughbred named Mighty Ruler (by Bold Ruler). The bay carried Matz to his first Pan Am Games in 1975 in Mexico City, where he earned the team gold and individual bronze.

It was in 1977 that Matz joined forces with his most famous partner, Jet Run. The elegant, bay Thoroughbred (by Jet Traffic) was bred by the noted Winter Place Farm in Maryland and had a pedigree meant for the racetrack. His jumping prowess was discovered early on, however, and by age 6 he’d already logged his first grand prix victory. Matz crossed paths with Jet Run at the 1975 Pan Am Games when he watched the horse carry his Mexican rider, Fernando Senderos, to individual gold and team silver.

Following the 1976 Montreal Olympics, F. Eugene Dixon Jr., purchased Jet Run for the U.S. team and thereafter Matz and Jet Run were nearly unbeatable. They won the 1977 American Jumping Derby (R.I.), the 1979 American Gold Cup (Pa.) and both team and individual gold medals at that year’s Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico.

In 1981, the pair topped the world’s best show jumpers–despite a record-setting blizzard in England on the final day of the competition–to claim the World Cup Final; Matz is one of only six U.S. riders to win the coveted title in its 27-year history. That year Jet Run also earned the American Grandprix Association Horse of the Year title and had his likeness plastered in magazines and on posters that adorned girls’ rooms all over the country.

Matz also rode Jet Run on the U.S. team in the 1982 World Cham-pionships, and, after finishing the Winter Equestrian Festival circuit (Fla.) in 1985, the gallant bay was retired to the Dixons’ farm in Pennsylvania. At the time of his retirement, Jet Run was second to Melanie Smith Taylor’s Calypso in career winnings on the AGA circuit and third behind Rodney Jenkins’ Idle Dice and Calypso with 14 grand prix wins.

Therefore, it was no surprise when Jet Run was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1996, and 10 years later Matz received the same honor when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame last March, the day after Barbaro won the Florida Derby on his march to the run for the roses.

After Jet Run, Matz continued his show jumping career with a collection of talented horses, including Heisman, Rhum IV, Olisco and The General. His final Pan Am Games appearance in Buenos Aires was memorable for the individual gold medal he won with the Argentine-bred The General as well as for the team bronze he earned with wife D.D. at his side on the team.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics became Matz’s swan song in international championships, and the fulfillment of winning team silver was perhaps overshadowed when he was asked to carry the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies. “It was a great moment in my riding career and in my life,” he said.

His was a career only few could imagine and even fewer could emulate, with some of the world’s best horses as his partners. And Matz won the USET Show Jumping Championship Trophy a remarkable six times, the last being in 1995. “I had a good time and enjoyed it. But I don’t miss it,” he said thoughtfully. “Looking back, I think it was a good time. But I had my time, and now it’s someone else’s turn.”

International show jumper Lisa Jacquin, who trained with Matz when her For The Moment won the 1995 AGA Championships at age 21, said at the time, “I chose Michael because of the fact that he’s by far one of the best horsemen in the country when it comes to the care of the horse.”

She also identified Matz’s two predominant traits as honesty and dedication. “He’s in his own class and deservedly so. It just comes easier to Michael than the rest of us,” she said.

A Life Change

Even though show jumping and flat racing are very different, the horsemanship required to excel in both takes years to develop. Matz had a head start when he shifted focus to flat racing, because his decades spent with Thoroughbred show jumpers allowed him to move into the new sport with a firm grasp of what it takes to turn out a winner.

“I’ve always liked race horses, even from the beginning,” he said. “And when I finished with the show horses, I had to make a choice. The only thing I could do is teach. I don’t mind passing on knowledge, but I didn’t want to do it full time. And because D.D.’s family was involved in racing, it was a natural next step.”

Although Matz didn’t have one particular mentor in racing when he began, he said he studied many different trainers to develop his own conditioning program. “A lot of trainers were very nice to me when I asked them questions,” he said. “You might look at a guy and see his success and take a little bit from him, and then see another. Learning from everybody is the key.”

Matz noted that training horses for the track and for show jumping are parallel in many ways. “You get a horse fit and figure out each horse’s personality,” he said. “There are, of course, certain things you do better with a horse you might have [realized] later. You can reflect and realize you might have been too hard on a horse or not hard enough in training. And, you have to consider what type of horse you’re training–are you training for a speed class or a grand prix? It’s the same thing with the race horses, you have to work with each one on an individual basis.”

As Matz began his career in racing, his reputation grew as his horses found the winner’s circle. “I’m so lucky,” he said. “With the hunters and jumpers I had very good support from owners, and in racing I’ve been supported by great people too—they’ve trusted me with very nice horses.”

Barbaro’s owners, the Jacksons, West Grove, Pa., neighbors of Matz, chose him to train some of their horses by virtue of his record in both sports.

“He’s certainly all he’s reputed to be,” said Gretchen of Michael. “I’ve enjoyed being with him in every capacity of that word. He has an intimate knowledge of the horse, and my husband and I never, I promise you, doubted what he chose [for Barbaro]. We believe in his program and believe it’s a very good program. He has the highest ethical standards and is just an exceptional person.”

In 2006, Matz logged his ninth year in training, a relative newcomer in the sport compared to others in his field such as Bob Baffert and Barclay Tagg, just two of the legends of racing he faced in the Kentucky Derby.

“I tried to do the best I possibly could with the show horses, their care and management, and I brought some of the same situations to race horses. Sometimes in the morning you get the work done a lot quicker, but you still try to have enough riders and people working to take the time with the horses. You want them out of their stalls as much as possible, whether in a paddock or on their back.”

Matz averages 50 to 75 horses in training at any one time and has barns at the Fair Hill Training Center as well as at Delaware Park. In Florida, he’s based at Palm Meadows where he has 65 horses in two barns.

Although as a show jumping rider, Matz was among the best in the world, he had to start back at the bottom rung of the ladder again when he signed his trainer’s license for the racetrack.

“That was the real challenge. I wasn’t the best in the world, but I was probably in the top 10 percent,” he said modestly of his show jumping career. “Now I’m in the bottom 10 percent. It was a challenge that fueled me. This year was my best year in money won. My races won isn’t as high, but I’ve won the right ones.”

In addition to his success with Barbaro in 2006, Matz also saddled Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Round Pond. He received the 4-year-old mare in late June from Richard C. Porter of Fox Hill Farm after she’d developed a hoof problem.

“She’d run in two races in Oaklawn [Ark.] and won, but Mr. Porter decided he wanted to change her situation,” said Matz. “I received the mare at Fair Hill where there’s a wood-chip track that was good for the horse.”

Round Pond was off from racing from March until the end of August, when Matz pointed her toward the Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park (N.J.). “She ran great there and was beat by 4 inches on a muddy track,” he noted. “She tried really hard, and that was a good race to come back. We waited five weeks to run her in the [grade 1] Beldame Stakes [N.Y.] where she was third, and then the Breeders’ Cup.”

Matz fiddled with Round Pond’s shoeing throughout the summer, trying to discover just the right solution to her problem. He switched her from glue-ons to regular shoes after the Molly Pitcher, and in the Beldame he wasn’t pleased with her comfort level and sent her back to the farrier for glue-ons for the Breeders’ Cup.

“From then on, it all went as planned,” he said. “She came in as good as you could ask in the Breeders’ Cup–and at that point it was good enough [for the victory]. Unfortunately, two horses in the field got hurt [Pine Island and Fleet Indian].”

In the press conference following the Breeders’ Cup, Matz expressed his sympathies to Pine Island’s owners for their loss after the filly–the leading 3-year-old in the country–dislocated her left fetlock joint and was euthanized. “Our thoughts are with all the connections,” said Matz, in a strange twist of fate.

By virtue of Round Pond’s impressive Distaff win and Barbaro’s Derby victory, both horses garnered Eclipse
Award nominations from the National Thoroughbred Rac-ing Association, the Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers Association. At the awards ceremony on Jan. 22, Barbaro finished second to Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Invasor in the Horse of the Year voting and also finished second to Bernardini, the victor in the Preakness, in the 3-year-old colt category. Round Pond finished second in the champion older female voting to Fleet Indian.

Barbaro’s connections didn’t leave the 36th annual Eclipse Awards without standing center stage, however. Team Barbaro was honored with the Special Eclipse Award, which recognizes outstanding individual achievements or contributions to Thoroughbred racing.

The Eclipse Awards are the pinnacle awards of Thoroughbred racing, and Matz made his presence known in 2006.

“In show jumping, you always want to be in the Olympics and it’s the ultimate dream in that sport,” said Matz. “I’m lucky that in a short time [in racing] I’ve gotten a horse to the Kentucky Derby and to the Breeders’ Cup, two of the dream races in this sport, and I’ve been lucky enough to win both.

“I feel very fortunate to have had two talented horses that gave me a chance going in, and that’s what it’s all about,” he continued. “The Kentucky Derby is special. Not many people can say they’ve won the Kentucky Derby. But good horses make good riders, and good horses make good trainers too.”

The Will To Survive

Michael Matz and Barbaro may have been meant to cross paths. After all, both have, against huge odds, managed to survive devastating circumstances to which others, unfortunately, succumbed. For Matz, it was a fiery plane crash and for Barbaro, he’s still struggling to overcome a catastrophic injury and the complications that ensued.

In 1989, Michael and his wife D.D. (then fianc�e) were on route to Philadelphia when the plane they were on crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, after a catastrophic engine failure that destroyed all of the plane’s hydraulic systems. Of the 296 passengers on board United Flight 232, 111 died.

Michael escaped the burning plane with three unaccompanied young children in tow–two holding his belt and a third following close behind. Then, he fought his way back into the burning wreckage to search for D.D. and rescued an 11-month-old girl from the luggage compartment.

For his heroism, ABC News named Michael their “Person of the Week.” “We were lucky to survive it and go on,” said Michael of a chapter in his life he finds difficult to reread.

In an emotional sidebar to the Kentucky Derby, the three children Michael rescued (now young adults) joined him there to cheer on Barbaro. Thanks to the extensive TV coverage of the Derby, their reunion was captured for all to appreciate during the Derby pre-race festivities.

It was just two weeks later that millions of racing fans worldwide, rooting for Barbaro to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, watched horrified as jockey Edgar Prado struggled to pull Barbaro up in the Preakness (Md.) after he shattered his right hind leg early in the race. In an instant, the Triple Crown contender began a more important race, the race for his life.

Dean W. Richardson, DVM, chief of surgery and the Charles W. Raker Professor of Equine Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary School’s Widener Hospital at New Bolton Center, was called into action. Richardson is an internationally recognized orthopedic surgeon whose research focuses on cartilage repair.

In a nine-hour surgery, Richardson repaired three fractures–a broken cannon bone above the ankle, a broken sesamoid bone behind the ankle and a broken long pastern bone below the ankle. The fetlock joint–the ankle–was dislocated.

Richardson said the pastern bone was shattered in “20-plus pieces.” The puzzle that was Barbaro’s hind leg was repaired with 23 screws and a metal plate. The damage was so severe that most horses would not survive. “Barbaro presented a case that was about as difficult as such an operation could be,” said Richardson.

The mainstream media followed Barbaro’s plight closely, and racing fans worldwide responded, sending thousands of cards, flowers, horse treats and e-mails to the horse while he recuperated. During the Belmont (N.Y.), about 20,000 people signed a 62′ x 7′ get-well card.

“The injury to Barbaro this spring was the adversity of the most wrenching kind,” said Bill Nack of the National Turf Writers Association during their annual dinner where Team Barbaro was honored with the “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons Award. The honor is presented to the individual or group exemplifying the spirit of racing. “And team Barbaro acquitted themselves so well that I suspect they ended up with more admirers and friends around the world than they would have if Barbaro had won the Triple Crown.”

As Barbaro’s right hind leg slowly healed and his prognosis improved, his connections’ trepidation slowly trickled into optimism. Unlike Ruffian, the high-strung filly who broke her leg in a high-profile 1975 match race and couldn’t be saved, Michael believed Barbaro had the right qualities to make a tractable patient.

“He has a very good disposition,” he said of the colt. “He’s strong and athletic and there’s not a mean bone in his body. The people that worked around him—Peter Brette and his groom—had nurtured that respect. It’s a two-way street.”

Throughout Barbaro’s recuperation, the colt’s owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, observed Michael’s dedication. “To me and my husband, it was very, very significant for us that after Barbaro broke down Michael was always there,” said Gretchen. “He was there on race day and was always there afterward. I wonder how many trainres would go to that extent. Michael did 90 percent of Barbaro’s grazing, which wasn’t really publicized. He loves that horse in every sense of the word.”

Just when Barbaro was making strides in recovery, he had a major setback in July when he developed laminitis in his left hind foot resulting in a partial hoof wall resection.

Despite rumors that Barbaro’s euthanization was imminent, this wasn’t the case, and the Jacksons continued to allow Richardson to do everything he could to keep the horse comfortable even though the prognosis was grim.

“The reality is that when you come in and see this horse every day, he nickers to you,” said Richardson during a July press conference. “He’s still eating well. He has excellent G.I. function. He is capable of walking around the stall.”

Again, Barbaro continued to progress through the summer and fall, the cast was removed from his broken leg and his left hind foot improved after surgery. Barbaro even began to venture outside his stall, and on Dec. 21 he appeared on ABC News’ Good Morning America walking outside the hospital with Richardson, both hind legs in support wraps.

Although he appeared with ample weight and a bright eye, Barbaro’s abnormal movement alarmed some TV viewers.

“We are aware that there is some public concern about his abnormal motion on the right hind limb, however, this is not unexpected,” said Richardson. “His gait may be abnormal as he learns to adapt to having fusions of two major joints in his lower limb and to the special shoe. In addition, the fracture had some collapse on the medial [inside] part of the pastern region after he developed laminitis on the left hind foot. Although this is visually unattractive, the mechanics of the lower leg are not seriously affected because the pastern and fetlock joints are fused.

“Our goal was to give him a leg that would be functional and comfortable enough to live happily. The right hind has healed well enough that we are optimistic about that possibility,” added Richardson in early January. “However, Barbaro’s left hind foot, which had laminitis, remains a more formidable long-term challenge. The foot must grow much more for him to have a truly successful outcome.”

Unfortunately, Richardson’s ongoing concern with Barbaro’s left hind foot was rekindled in January when the colt began exhibiting pain after a cast change. On Jan. 13, they assessed the situation and performed additional surgery.

“In today’s procedure, another area of undermined hoof wall was removed,” said Richardson. “Because he has been more uncomfortable on his left hind, we put a cast back on the right hind lower limb for additional support.”

And while Matz, the Jacksons and the veterinarians continue to support Barbaro in his battle against the odds, the colt’s outcome remains far from certain. “We have not accomplished anything yet. There’s still a long way to go. He’s definitely heading in the right direction again, though,” said Richardson.

Personal Profile
Birthdate: Jan. 23, 1951.

Home: Vintage Farm, Collegeville, Pa.

Family: Wife Dorothy (D.D.), former international show jumper who now foxhunts; daughters Michelle, 24, who galloped for Michael last summer, and Lucy, 8, who shows and foxhunts; sons Michael Jr., 23, who plays polo, Alex, 10, who shows and foxhunts, Robert, 6, who rides a little, and Arthur, 4, who is just starting.

Family Ties: D.D.’s family has been immersed in Thoroughbred racing for generations. Her grandfather Robert Kleberg owned King Ranch in Texas and raced Assault, the 1946 Triple Crown winner, along with the 1950 Kentucky Derby winner Middleground. Her mother, Helen Kleberg, is also a renowned Thoroughbred breeder.

Primary Training Base: Fair Hill Training Center, Md.

2006 NTRA Statistics: starts-256; 1st-2nd-3rd-42-34-37; earnings-$5,166,959 (17th); in the money percent-44%.

Top Race Horses: Barbaro, Round Pond, Kicken Kris, Sangrita, Aunt Henny, Super Natascha and Nancy Creek.

Top Show Jumpers: Judgement, Rhum IV, The General, Olisco, Heisman, Bon Retour, Chef, Honest Tom and Jet Run.

Career Highlights
2006 Elected to the Show Jumping Hall of Fame
2006 Special Eclipse Award For Team Barbaro
2006 NTRA “Moment Of The Year”
2006 NTRA Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons Award
Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Candidate (Barbaro)
1st—2006 Kentucky Derby (Barbaro)
1st—2006 Emirates Airlines Breeders’ Cup Distaff (Ky.) (Round Pond)
3rd—2006 Beldame Stakes (N.Y.) (Round Pond)
1st—2006 Florida Derby (Barbaro)
1st—2005 Laurel Futurity (Md.) (Barbaro)
1st—2004 Arlington Million (Ill.) (Kicken Kris)
1st—2003 Secretariat Stakes (Ill.) (Kicken Kris)
Six-time USET Show Jumping Champion
American Grandprix Association Rider of the Year (1981, ’84)
Three-time Olympian (1976, ’92, ’96)
Team silver—1996 Atlanta Olympics (Rhum IV)
Team silver and individual gold—1995 Pan Am Games (Argentina) (The General)
Team gold—1986 World Show Jumping Championships (Germany) (Chef)
1st—1981 FEI Show Jumping World Cup (England) (Jet Run)
Team gold and individual gold—1979 Pan Am Games (Puerto Rico) (Germany) (Jet Run)
Team and individual bronze—1978 World Show Jumping Championships (Jet Run)
Team gold and individual bronze—1975 Pan Am Games (Mexico) (Mighty Ruler)

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