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Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 4. Below are some personal choices for that honor by SI writers.
11/13/2006 12:27:00 PM

My Sportsmen: Roy & Gretchen Jackson, Michael Matz

Oakland Arena
Barbaro's Kentucky Derby victory team (from left): jockey Edgar Prado, Gretchen Jackson, Michael Matz, Roy Jackson.
Bill Frakes/SI

By Frank Deford

Sportsman of the Year 2006 in the world we live in? No dispute. Easy as pie.

Roger Federer.

Not only did he have by far the best year of any athlete playing on the face of the earth in 2006, but he is adored by all those he beats as gracious, fair, kind, generous, and, yes, sportsmanlike. So, that settles that.

Oh wait.

Yeah, sorry, I forgot. We're 'Mercans. We don't count athletes who don't come from here'bouts. Quick, there must be a linebacker or some Texas hold 'em poker player we can dredge up to name instead of Federer, thereby to salvage the honor of the neighborhood.

And luckily there is someone just right with the right address -- actually, three people who are bound up in a common enterprise, who so utterly represent all the values of sportsmanship, even as it flows into the well of humanity.

The Americans I nominate for Sportsman and Sportswoman of the year are Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and Michael Matz. The Jacksons own a 3-year-old thoroughbred named Barbaro. They put Barbaro in the care of Matz. Racing folk were appalled at how Matz trained Barbaro. Did everything wrong, did Matz. Raced his colt on the turf. Didn't race him enough. What kind of training is that for the Kentucky Derby?

The Jacksons never blinked. They trusted their trainer; they knew what the man was made of. Matz was in a plane crash once. He escaped, but he went back into the fiery wreckage and pulled three children to safety. An equestrian before he was a trainer, he was selected to carry the flag for the U.S. Olympic team at the '92 Olympics.

Matz botched Barbaro's training so completely he won the Kentucky Derby by six-and-a-half lengths. The colt was suddenly revealed as potentially a horse for the ages. But then, of course, in his next start, the Preakness, Barbaro horribly fractured his right hind leg.

The obvious thing was to put the poor beast down. No one offered any hope. But, instead, the Jacksons decided to do everything possible to save him. So long as Barbaro did not incur more pain, they would try. Matz comes virtually every day to see him, and yes, miraculously, despite terrible setbacks, Barbaro approaches recovery. He's taller now, weighs more than 1,100 pounds. He can't understand why he has to wear this damn cast, but he's even starting to get a little frisky.

Maybe someday Barbaro can even stand at stud. It would make the Jacksons (and Metz) lots of money. But that isn't why they spent so extravagantly to try and save him. They did that because they felt that this great, gorgeous beast deserved the chance to have live, to eat some sugar and clover and maybe someday even run a little, if only in a green field.

But in saving Barbaro, the Jacksons and their trainer made so many people care -- even people who never paid much never mind to horse racing. They embroidered their sport with goodness and nobility and made us all see that sometimes dreams can come true -- even if it wasn't the dream we first had in mind. Barbaro didn't win the Triple Crown. Because of the people who loved him, he won life.

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