LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The life-size statue sits at the front gate of Churchill Downs, a magnificent bronzed Barbaro in full stride, all four hooves off the ground and heading toward his greatest victory.
Muscular and athletic, its presence provokes quiet reflection of the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner at the peak of his power and of his death, eight months later, following a horrific injury.
Some leave red roses, others snap photos.
Trainer Michael Matz is hoping another 3-year-old colt, Union Rags, can fill the hole in his barn and in his soul.
He sees the same promising signs from Union Rags, who is using the same stall as Barbaro and is the early second choice for Saturday’s 138th Derby.
“They’re both big, good-looking, fast, and athletic. Union Rags still has to live up to what Barbaro did,’’ Matz said.
Matz and owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson rode a roller coaster of emotion during Barbaro’s eight-month fight that had the public rooting for his survival from the hoof infection that developed after he broke his leg in the opening strides of the Preakness two weeks after the Derby. Just when the colt seemed on the mend, another surgery would be needed and their hopes would sag again.
Late in 2006, the trio won the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic with Round Pond, but their good luck ran out two months later when Barbaro was euthanized.
“He captured a lot of people’s hearts,’’ Matz said. “He didn’t do much wrong. He was an undefeated horse. Every time we ran him, he won, except the time he got hurt. In the racing community, I think he brought a lot of people together. I even think when he did get hurt, he brought even more people together.’’
Matz stoically plowed ahead, with the Jacksons supplying him more horses to train, including Barbaro’s baby brothers Nicanor and Lentenor.
Things abruptly changed in July, with the couple firing Matz after more than 10 years working together. The Jacksons told him it was a business decision, leaving Matz mystified and convinced he had said or done something to make them lose confidence in him.
Matz has said he will be forever grateful to the couple for giving him a Derby winner, although they don’t keep in touch.
Matz was unknown as a trainer outside the Mid-Atlantic area before Barbaro romped to a 6 1/2-length win in the Derby. Now Matz has moved on again, training Union Rags for Phyllis Wyeth, the 71-year-old former steeplechase rider and aide to President John F. Kennedy.
“I guess when he moved on from the Jacksons and Barbaro, all of a sudden Union Rags won his first start,’’ said Jamie Wyeth, Phyllis’s husband. “It’s kind of interesting how that seems to be in the air. He just moves right on to another thing. He’s such a wonderful person.’’
Jamie Wyeth described Matz as “a perfect fit for us.’’
Matz is on a mission to win a second Derby with his best horse since Barbaro, having returned to Churchill Downs in 2008 with Visionaire, who finished 12th.
Union Rags is the early 9-2 second choice for Saturday’s race.
“Barbaro was undefeated. This horse is a length and a half from being undefeated,’’ Matz said, referring to Union Rags’s third-place finish in the Florida Derby in March.
Matz wants to win this one for Phyllis Wyeth, who injured her neck in a 1962 car accident and became wheelchair-bound in 2001 as a result of its degenerative effects. Wyeth grew up in a racing family but didn’t experience the thrill of a major stakes victory until last year when Union Rags won the Champagne at Saratoga.
“I think she’d enjoy it like anybody else would,’’ Matz said. “She told me the other day she got on the plane to come down here and she cried.’’
Wyeth bred Union Rags in 2009 near Philadelphia at Chadds Ford Stable, a short drive from the Jacksons’ farm. After failing to find anyone to buy a half-share of the horse, she decided to sell Union Rags for $145,000 to Mike Ivarone of IEAH Stables, owner of 2008 Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. Wyeth later got a bad case of seller’s remorse.
When IEAH put Union Rags up for sale in February 2011, Wyeth told her bloodstock agent to buy him back. She had the winning bid of $390,000, regaining the colt for $245,000 more than she had sold him for.
“It almost sounds like a bad movie,’’ Jamie Wyeth said. “Phyllis is a different sort of owner in that she’s a small owner, doesn’t have a lot of horses, but each horse means very much to her, in particular this one.’’