At the desk where he works through entries after all of his morning training sessions are through, Michael Matz keeps a photo leaning against the wall.
In a walnut frame, it is slightly – and surprisingly – faded. The text below a horse in full stride is yellow, and the font announcing the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner appears out of fashion.
Barbaro’s run at the Derby – and subsequent breakdown at the Preakness – came six years ago. The picture has aged. The memory, for Matz, is always fresh.
He will run Teeth of the Dog at Preakness today after his most promising horse since Barbaro, Union Rags, broke poorly and recovered only in the final stretch of the Derby two weeks ago.
“It was a terrible trip,” he said. He has clearly been unhappy with the work of Julien Leparoux on the colt. “If you’re in a car and you hit a light pole, it’s your fault, right? [Union Rags] just didn’t get a chance to run.”
I visited Matz last Friday at his two beautiful barns, which sit north of the main track at the Fair Hill Training Center. As I wrote later that afternoon, Matz is a stern leader. For one session, he jumped in the saddle and led his charges up the path to the track. They went, two by two and quietly. Maybe it was the bucolic farm setting, or the way the sun hung low in the sky, but it was not difficult to envision Matz leading his people toward some defining moment.
In his mind, he was. He is exacting. Every training session must go the way he has planned. He will bark at a rider if he or she doesn’t take a horse far enough, or lets the horse work too easily. At the end of this particular session, he spent half an hour schooling a filly in the gate. Over and over, he had her walk into that tight space. Each time she improved, he petted her. Tractors came over the track. Matz stayed out there, encouraging the filly.
“She was having a good experience,” he said, “and it was important to keep it going. You’ve just got to make them feel comfortable. You’re not going to be rough with a horse and train it to like the gate.”
Later that afternoon, Matz and I talked for about 45 minutes. We discussed his support for the anti-bleeding drug Lasix, and he told me that horse racing needs a commission to codify rules across states.
Listening to Matz brought me back to earlier days. He grew up not far from where I did in Berks County, Pa., (our mothers live about a mile apart) and speaks like any number of teachers I had there. He is often incredulous, but always measured. His rant on the state of horse racing lasted some 12 minutes and included nine rhetorical questions.
He did not have much to say about Teeth of the Dog. He had probably preferred to hold the colt for the Belmont, but owner J.W. Singer saw opportunity in this Preakness. Fresh horses have not done particularly well in the Preakness; 64 have started in the last decade, and only Rachel Alexandra and Bernardini have won. Deputed Testamony, the last horse with Maryland ties to win the Preakness, was a shooter. But only four horses besides the above three have won the Preakness after not racing in the Derby since 1962.
Teeth of the Dog broke his maiden in Florida earlier this year, beating Derby fourth-place finisher and third-favorite in the Preakness Went the Day Well, then finished third in the Wood Memorial. He was given the best odds of all the shooters on the morning line, at 15-1.
It’s hard to tell if Matz would feel any relief from a surprise Preakness win. He so relentlessly works on his horses – he rarely misses a training session at Fair Hill – that it is difficult to get him to reflect on his successes and failures. After the Derby, he lamented the missed chance for Union Rags and owner Phyllis Wyeth (whose story would have captured the nation’s attention had she made it to the winner’s circle). He deflected talk of his own disappointment.
Of his much-publicized split with the Jackson family over the winner – owners of Barbaro – he would say only:
“I still don’t know why it happened. Usually if you get fired, you know why. Maybe they didn’t think the horses were running well enough, but I just didn’t have the stock to win big races. Maybe it has something to do with my stance on Lasix.”
Roy and Gretchen Jackson have not said why they opted to give their horses to other trainers. Matz said he remains confident that the owners he works with now will continue sending him quality horses.
But it seems unlikely that any will replace that framed photo leaning against the wall in the center of his desk.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times