Michael Matz secured his place in Thoroughbred history with his masterful handling of Barbaro in 2006, when he placed trust in his astute horsemanship, as well as his abundantly gifted horse, during a winter and spring campaign that led to a spectacular Kentucky Derby victory.
Barbaro, who would suffer catastrophic injuries in the Preakness two weeks later that would tragically claim his life, was precision-tuned for his Derby score by a trainer who blocked out skeptics and always did the right thing by his horse.
The Pennsylvania native, a veteran of three Olympic equestrian teams who carried the U.S. flag during the closing ceremonies in 1996, ventured to Churchill Downs with a horse that had gone undefeated in two starts as a two-year-old and in three stakes races, including victories in the Grade 3 Holy Bull and Grade 1 Florida Derby, as a three-year-old.
Although handicappers had constantly reminded Matz that the five-week break between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby bucked a long-standing trend, Barbaro extended his undefeated streak in the Run for the Roses, winning by 6 1/2 lengths, the largest margin of victory since Triple Crown champion Assault won by eight in 1946.
Judging from his past success in America's most important race, Matz isn't likely to be questioned as he sets out on the Road to the Kentucky Derby with Union Rags in Sunday's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.
"I wish we could take the same path and have the same result, that's for sure," Matz said with a smile, knowing full well that in order to achieve the same result on the first Saturday in May with Union Rags, he will need to customize a winter and spring campaign for his new Derby hopeful.
"Barbaro had three race races as a three-year-old, but only two races as a two-year-old."
Union Rags will launch his three-year-old season Sunday, when he takes on the undefeated Todd Pletcher-trained duo of Algorithms and Discreet Dancer, with considerably more juvenile experience than Barbaro. The son of Dixie Union raced four times last year, when he followed up a victorious debut at Delaware Park in July with stakes victories in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont. The Kentucky-bred colt suffered his first defeat following a wide trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, in which he finished a head short of catching Hansen.
Whereas Barbaro had three preps as a three-year-old, Matz had determined that already experienced and accomplished Union Rags will need just two Derby preps, including the Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 31.
"I think this colt is a bit more laidback than Barbaro. Barbaro was very professional in what he did once you got the saddle on him. When you got the rider on him, he couldn't be any better," Matz said.
"This horse is bigger and more mature than Barbaro was as a three-year-old at this point."
Union Rags' breeder and owner Phyllis Wyeth of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, nearly missed out in campaigning her homebred colt, which she sold as a yearling for $145,000 at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale. The 70-year-old former employee of John F. Kennedy, who handled the White House mail during his presidency, had a change of heart and bought back Union Rags at the Fasig-Tipton Florida Sale at Palm Meadows Training Center last February for $390,000.
"I've had a number of horses for Mrs. Wyeth, but nothing of this caliber," Matz said. "She loves this horse. She'll be here for the Fountain of Youth."