No Joy Ride
Trainer Michael Matz got his first Breeders Cup victory, but a tragic spill brought back memories of Barbaro
THE SYMMETRY was painful for trainer Michael Matz. Six months ago he saddled 3-year-old Barbaro for a dominant victory in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, then two weeks later Barbaro suffered a career-ending injury in the Preakness, launching a tale of unlikely survival that has consumed the sport and transformed Matz into a tragic public figure.
Last Saturday, Matz returned to Louisville for the eight-race Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships and won the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff with 4-year-old Round Pond, a 14--1 shot whom Matz began training in June. The finish was eerily similar to Barbaro's, as Round Pond drew clear under jockey Edgar Prado through the most storied homestretch in racing. "The first thing that crossed my mind," said Prado, who was also Barbaro's rider, "was how good this was for Michael Matz." But after a moment's celebration Matz learned that two other fillies in the race, favorite Fleet Indian and second betting choice Pine Island, had broken down. Pine Island, trained by Shug McGaughey, suffered such severe injuries to her left foreleg that she was euthanized on the track. Fleet Indian will survive, but she will not race again.
"I was very excited about my horse," Matz said afterward. "But then I got to the winner's circle and heard a veterinarian talking on the phone about fractures and saying two horses had gone down. What can I say? I feel so terrible for their owners and everyone involved."
Matz had spent Breeders' Cup week in Barn 41 on the Churchill Downs backstretch, graciously fielding the inevitable questions about returning to the scene of Barbaro's Derby victory. Early in the week his eyes welled with tears; later he smiled and said, "[The Derby win] was obviously a good time for us. We'll never know what could have happened."
He filled some of the hours at the track by talking with McGaughey, who, like Matz, was running only one horse in the Breeders' Cup. "It was my horse, then a hay stall and then Shug's horse," said Matz. "We talked about how well our horses were doing. I remember saying to Shug, 'I'd like to have the exacta with our two horses.'"
Pine Island, who won the Alabama and Gazelle stakes in New York during the summer, was never a factor in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Under jockey Javier Castellano, Pine Island appeared to bobble slightly as she passed the grandstand for the first time, then collapsed entering the backstretch with a compound fracture of her front left ankle. Castellano was thrown over the filly's right shoulder but not injured.
Fleet Indian, winner of eight consecutive races since November 2005, was running 11th when she injured the suspensory ligament in her left foreleg as she rounded the final turn. She is trained by Todd Pletcher, who started a record 17 horses in the Breeders' Cup but did not win a race.
Round Pond, meanwhile, rocketed to the lead under Prado just past the top of the stretch and drew away easily. It was her first victory in three races since Matz took over her training, and his first Breeders' Cup win. His empathy made all of this difficult to embrace. "It's like what happened to Barbaro," Matz said. "You don't know why it happens, but you're heartbroken."
BREEDERS' CUP CLASSIC
Bernardini Not The Great One
The thoroughbred industry and the media that cover it search tirelessly for the next superhorse, on the theory that such an animal will transcend the sport's niche position in the marketplace. Over the summer 3-year-old Bernardini was placed on the throne, but the Breeders' Cup Classic proved again that it is a mighty leap from being very good to being great.
Bernardini went off at even money, the shortest-priced Classic favorite since Cigar in 1996, but was worn down in the homestretch by 4-year-old Invasor and beaten by a length. "[Bernardini] is a great horse, but there was one better today," said winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Bernardini had entered the race with six consecutive victories by a combined 40 lengths, a streak that included a 5¼ length win in the Preakness that was overshadowed by Barbaro's breakdown. In subsequent races—including the Travers at Saratoga in late August and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in October—Bernardini had not been pressured. Rival trainers looking for holes in Bernardini's racing history pointed to his lack of battle toughness. "He's never really been in traffic," said Doug O'Neill, trainer of California-based Lava Man, who came into the Classic with a seven-race winning streak but finished seventh.
Invasor, meanwhile, hadn't raced since winning the Aug. 5 Whitney at Saratoga, sitting out the Jockey Club with a fever. As it turned out, skipping that race may have left him fresher for the Breeders' Cup. Sitting eighth a half mile into the race under rider Fernando Jara, Invasor rolled five-wide on the final turn and caught Bernardini just inside the 16th pole.
Invasor's victory, on top of triumphs in the Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap and Whitney, should wrap up Horse of the Year honors for the Argentine-bred horse, who was purchased by Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai after Invasor won the first five starts of his career, all in Uruguay, in the fall of 2005. It also finishes an extraordinary year for all branches of the Maktoum family, which won two legs of the Triple Crown with Bernardini (Preakness) and Jazil (Belmont), in addition to Invasor's and Bernardini's combined seven Grade 1 victories.
The voting for 3-year-old champion might be closer. Bernardini was dominant in winning the Preakness, Jim Dandy, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, but voters will also remember Barbaro's sensational Kentucky Derby victory, his win in the Florida Derby and his unbeaten record in the four races that he finished.
Street Sense won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 10 lengths, the widest victory margin in the history of the race. "We want to come back here on the first Saturday in May," said trainer Carl Nafzger. If Street Sense can repeat his success at Churchill Downs, he will be the first of 23 Juvenile winners to win the Kentucky Derby. Here's how the last 10 Juvenile winners fared in the Run for the Roses.
CLOSING STATEMENT Invasor (center) sealed Horse of the Year honors when he blew past Bernardini (right) in the stretch.