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HOW SWIFTLY the Triple Crown talk changed, from uncertainty to the pursuit of greatness in two minutes. Before the start of the 132nd Kentucky Derby last Saturday, the race appeared wide open. At least a half dozen good horses could not be separated by ordinary handicapping tools. Any one of seven could win, said two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito. Any one of 10, said three-time winner Bob Baffert. Parity reigned. There was no apparent superstar. � As the 20-horse field rumbled down the Churchill Downs backstretch, tossing clumps of light brown dirt into the clear, spring air, two sprinters--Keyed Entry and Sinister Minister--were dying on the lead. Lurking behind them was unbeaten Barbaro. In a clubhouse box D.D. Matz, wife of Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, looked through a pair of binoculars at Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, who, except to make a casual glance over his shoulder, was as still as a statue on the colt's back. He's totally on cruise control, she thought. � In the tunnel that leads from the paddock to the track Barbaro's assistant trainer, Peter Brette, watched the race on a 12-inch television monitor over the shoulder of Dan Hendricks, the paraplegic, wheelchair-bound trainer of morning-line favorite Brother Derek. When Prado finally let Barbaro loose on the far turn, the horse shot to the lead. After opening three lengths at the top of the stretch, Barbaro appeared to be toying with the field. Brette began shouting, louder with each exhortation: "Come on, Barbaro! Come on, Barbaro! Come on, Barbaro!" The massive, dark bay colt thundered away as the crowd of 157,536 roared in support. At the finish Brette pulled his cellphone from his pocket, his hand quivering as he answered a call. "Awesome," he told a reporter standing nearby. "It was over at the quarter pole."
Parity? Not so much. Instead there is a superstar. Barbaro's 6 1/2-length margin of victory over 30-1 shot Bluegrass Cat was the widest in the Derby since Triple Crown winner Assault's eight-length win 60 years ago, and Barbaro became just the second undefeated winner of the race since Seattle Slew in 1977. More seductively, he ran his final quarter mile in a brisk 24.34 seconds without Prado touching him, the fastest Derby finish in 16 years. Barbaro galloped past the finish line with his ears pricked, scarcely blowing, as if he could circle the track again. "Boy, he looked the part out there," Baffert said on Sunday. "He reminds me of [2001 Preakness and Belmont winner] Point Given. And now he's got the tough one out of the way, so look out."
Thus begins another flirtation between horse racing and history, fueled by the beauty and ease of Barbaro's win, yet tempered by a legacy of near misses. It has been 28 years since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner, but based on his Derby performance Barbaro forcefully suggested that he can end that drought.
He is headed to the Preakness and the Belmont in capable hands. Matz, 55, brought Barbaro to Churchill Downs with only two career starts on dirt and five weeks between races, a victory in the Florida Derby on April 1 having been his last outing. In the racing world, it was axiomatic that a horse could not win the Derby with five weeks' rest, because it had not been done in 50 years. Matz trusted his instincts, which were honed through four decades, beginning with the afternoon in 1966 when George Kohl, for whom Matz did weekend chores as a teenager on a farm in Adamstown, Pa., invited him on a horse ride. "Mr. Kohl asked me if I knew how to ride," recalls Matz. "I said, 'Oh, sure,' because I wanted to keep my job. I had no idea what I was doing, but I just watched him and tried to do the same things."
The Kentucky Derby was just Barbaro's second race in 13 weeks, but Matz had trained him to a lethal sharpness. On the morning of the race Brette took Barbaro out for a light, one-mile gallop, and the colt nearly bolted at the sight of another horse cruising past. "We only took him out to stretch his legs," says Matz, "but he was ready to go at seven in the morning."
The victory added a third major chapter to Matz's remarkable life: Plane crash hero, Olympic medalist, Kentucky Derby winner. Sitting near Matz at Churchill Downs were Jody Roth, 31; Melissa Roth Radcliffe, 29; and Travis Roth, 26, all of whom Matz rescued from the crash of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 years ago (SI, May 8). "We were happy to share the day with Michael," Jody said. "But to have Barbaro win, too, that's just too much." On Saturday night the siblings were making plans to attend the Preakness.
So, too, were Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who met more than half a century ago at a mixer for prep-school students in the Philadelphia area and have been married for 46 years. From 1982 through 2000 Roy, 69, operated Convest, which represented professional baseball players; he had previously been president of two minor leagues.
The Jacksons got into the horse business in the mid-'70s. Gretchen liked to ride, but Roy didn't. "Owning thoroughbreds was something we could do together," says Gretchen, 68. They have built Lael Farm in West Grove, Pa., into a substantial operation, with more than 70 racehorses, broodmares and yearlings. They breed and sell many of their horses (including George Washington, who on Saturday in Newmarket, England, won the 2000 Guineas, one of the most prestigious races in Europe), eschewing emotional attachments. "These horses are not our pets," says Gretchen. "You've got to operate as a business and avoid falling in love with horses. We weren't smart with Barbaro. We loved him."
They loved him in no small part because he was fast and special from the very beginning. In the spring of 2002, the Jacksons bred their mare La Ville Rouge to Dynaformer, who's known for producing excellent turf horses that have the stamina to run longer distances. The colt was foaled at Sanborn Chase Farm in Kentucky and named, unceremoniously, for a fictional foxhound in a lithograph that hangs in the Jacksons' house. Barbaro was sent as a yearling to be broken at Stephens Thoroughbreds in Ocala, Fla. "We've had a lot of Dynaformer yearlings down here," says owner John Stephens. "They tend to be big and long and rangy. Barbaro was all of those things, but he had muscle on him that they usually don't."