April 2, 2006 in Sports

Barbaro wins Florida Derby, becomes favorite for Kentucky

Richard Rosenblatt Associated Press
 

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Michael Matz is taking his first horse to the Kentucky Derby. Along with Florida Derby winner Barbaro, the trainer will bring along his own riveting biography.

The 55-year-old Matz is a three-time Olympian in equestrian and carried the U.S. flag at the closing ceremony at the 1996 Atlanta Games, much of it accomplished after surviving a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield 17 years ago.

The latest chapter in his life unfolded Saturday at Gulfstream Park, when Barbaro beat Sharp Humor by a half length to stamp himself a favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

“He was ready to run today,” Matz said. “He’s a good horse. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him.”

Barbaro came off an eight-week layoff and ran his undefeated record to 5 for 5.

Ridden by Edgar Prado, Barbaro battled pacesetter Sharp Humor nose to nose down the stretch before pulling ahead for good inside the 16th pole.

“It’s the first time anybody has come back at him,” Matz’s assistant Peter Brette said. “He needed it. This race will make a man of him.”

Plans call for Barbaro to remain in Florida for another week and then be shipped to Kentucky, first to Keeneland in Lexington, then on to Churchill Downs.

Barbaro now ranks with Brother Derek and Lawyer Ron among the top Derby contenders. The difference is Barbaro won’t run again until the Derby – the others have another prep.

Race after race, Barbaro has proven to be perhaps the most versatile colt in the game. After winning his first three starts on the turf at three different tracks, Matz tried him on the dirt and Barbaro won the Holy Bull in the slop on Feb. 4.

The 11/8-mile Florida Derby, over a dry dirt track on a sunny day, was the biggest test yet.

Barbaro aced the exam. In five weeks, more challenges await: Barbaro will try to become the third horse since Seattle Slew in 1977 to win the Derby with an unbeaten record (Smarty Jones did it in 2004); and he’ll try to become the first horse to win it off a five-week layoff since Needles in 1956.

“I hope we have a fresh horse come the first Saturday in May,” Matz said.

© Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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