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May 9, 2006

Derby Coverage: Matz’s deserved win

Something so right and so good happened in the 132nd Kentucky Derby that even the cynics in the crowd of 157,536 at Churchill Downs had to raise their mint julep glasses and lift their voices in lusty tribute to an American hero and his remarkable horse.Taking the lead at the top of the stretch, Barbaro drew off for a 6 ½-length victory over Bluegrass Cat that made him only the sixth unbeaten colt to win the world’s most popular thoroughbred horse race.It was the ride of a lifetime for jockey Edgar Prado, who won his first Derby, and the climax of an amazing day for Roy and Gretchen Jackson of West Grove, Pa., the breeders and owners of Barbaro who earlier in the day won the English 2000 Guineas with George Washington, another horse they bred.But mostly it was a fitting reward for trainer Michael Matz.It was almost 17 years ago that Michael Matz, then in the midst of show-horse career that earned him a spot on two U.S. Olympic Equestrian teams, not only survived one of the most horrific airplane crashes in American history, but helped a couple of children to safety.On Derby Day, those children, now grown, were with Matz as he watched Barbaro gallop his way into the history book. The winning time for the mile and a quarter was 2:01 36.“I just couldn’t be more pleased,” said Matz. “My only thought was, ‘Just don’t fall down.’”About all that fell down Saturday were the Derby celebrants who went a julep or two too far. Unless, of course, you want to count our fearless local TV forecasters, whose early-week predictions were dead wrong, and the, ah, experts in the pressbox who almost unanimously predicted a wide-open Derby.The Derby was only the sixth career race for Barbaro, and it was his first start since his victory in the Florida Derby on April 1. His victory made him the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win the Derby off a five-week layoff.In addition, his margin of victory was the Derby’s largest since Assault began his 1946 Triple Crown sweep with an eight-length win. As fate would have it, Assault was bred and owned by the King Ranch of Texas — and Matz’s wife, the former D.D. Alexander, is the heiress to the King Ranch fortune and legacy.In fact, D.D. was with Matz on July 19, 1989. Then engaged, they were returning from judging a horse show in Hawaii, but missed their connection to Philadelphia in Denver. The next flights were leaving 20 minutes apart, and, says Matz, “we picked the wrong one.”So did Jody, Melissa and Travis Roth, who were forced to get on United Airlines Flight 232 because their flight was overbooked. They were traveling unaccompanied by their parents, Done and Leslie Roth of Denver.Over Iowa, the DC-10’s engine blew up and it crashed into a cornfield near Sioux City, killing 111. The 185 survivors included Matz, Alexander and the three Roth children. After the crash, Matz led Travis and Melissa through a hole in the fuselage to safety. Then he went back inside and rescued a crying baby from an overhead bin.Over the years, the Roth family has kept in touch with Michael and D.D. They were delighted when he was named to carry the U.S. flag in the closing ceremonies for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. When Matz retired from riding show horses, they attended a ceremony in his honor in his hometown of Redding, Pa.Turning to thoroughbred training six years ago, Matz made his first national impact when he won the 2004 Arlington with Kickin Kris. When the Jacksons sent him Barbaro, he initially thought the colt’s high-stepping gait would suit him perfectly for grass racing.He won his first three on the turf, so Matz decided to see what he could do on the dirt. On Feb. 4, he won the Holy Bull Stakes on a sloppy track at Gulfstream Park. Then came his gutty half-length victory in the Florida Derby.In the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Matz was reluctant to talk about United flight 232. “That happened a long time ago,” he told Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal. “We just have to give thanks that both my wife and I got out and that we were able to save those kids.”He may not go down in history as the greatest trainer to win the Derby. But there’s no argument about this: He’s the most deserving.  Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com