FAIR HILL, Md. - One year ago, for the 2 weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the Fair Hill Training Center was the hub of the racing universe. Yesterday, on a glorious morning, all you could see around Michael Matz' barns were trees, brilliant blue sky, grass, horse paths and horses. If you wanted to get lost, this was the place.
Until jockey Ramon Dominguez arrived around 8:30 with the requisite box of race track doughnuts, you couldn't have imagined something important might be about to happen. Chelokee, the 3-year-old colt Matz trains, was being readied for a workout that would help determine whether the horse would go for Saturday's Preakness or perhaps another race on the Pimlico card, one that used to be named for the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton in 1919. The race name has been changed; now it will be called the Barbaro Stakes.
A year ago, Barbaro was the horse with the chance at the Triple Crown. When the colt was vanned down I-95 to Baltimore the day before the Preakness, there was every expectation he would be vanned back up I-95 the next evening a step closer to that Triple Crown. Instead, the van never made it back to Fair Hill, detouring off I-95 to the New Bolton Center with Matz and his assistant Peter Brette close behind. The following morning, Matz arrived to an empty stall.
This was a new day, a different horse, and another time. Matz, on his pony, Dominguez on Chelokee and Brette on Wood Be Willing, a nice 5-year-old pointing for the Dixie on the Preakness undercard, walked up to the training track together.
With Matz watching, horses and riders galloped slowly around the new Tapeta track inside the dirt track and broke off for their 5-furlong workout together. There was no pressure put on either horse as they ran in company all the way to the finish.
"He felt very good and did everything very nicely," Dominguez said of Chelokee. "Mike just wanted me to stay with the other horse and that's what I did."
Matz thought Chelokee might be a Derby horse. After the colt bruised a foot in the Florida Derby, then popped an abscess and followed that by running off after a rein broke one morning at Keeneland, Matz saw no good signs. As it turned out, Chelokee would not have made the field anyway because of insufficient graded stakes earnings.
Dominguez is sure of one thing: If Chelokee doesn't get stopped at the top of the stretch in the Florida Derby, the colt would not have finished third.
"I think I would have won that race, definitely," he said. "What can you do? Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes it goes against you."
Sometimes your horse wins the Derby. Sometimes your horse breaks down in the Preakness. Even in the often-unforgiving world of horse racing, that is not supposed to happen. But it did.
You then have a choice. You can look back and wonder what might have been. Or you can look ahead and wonder what might be.
Matz is explaining that 24 2-year-olds had just arrived, the future. He conducts a tour of the barns, showing off horses with brilliant pedigrees, horses that might get him back to the Derby. Or the Preakness. Or both.
The coming week will be about Derby-winner Street Sense, as it should be. It will also be about Barbaro and Matz. The trainer gets that.
"I know what's going to happen," Matz said. "But I think it's more about the horse instead of me. If it wasn't for the horses, there's no talking to me."
So what about Chelokee? The colt hasn't raced since March 31, the day Ohio State and Florida won to set up their national championship meeting. The top three in the Derby are back and look strong.
"Personally, right now, I'm leaning toward the Barbaro," Matz said. "But if [the owners] want to try the other race and he comes out of the [work] good, I'm not opposed to it.
"All along, he's gone in little steps forward. I just don't think it would be [in his best interest to run in the Preakness]."
Matz noticed the Florida Derby winner, Scat Daddy, finished 18th in Kentucky. Stormello, fourth in Florida, was 19th in the Derby. That, he said, is not reassuring for a run at the Preakness.
"I'd love to say you owe me a Preakness, to go back there," Matz said. "But I don't know that's the right feeling to have. I'm sure he would fit in the group, but, at this time, my honest feeling is that I should run in the Barbaro."
Matz thinks Chelokee will be good enough to face the best, eventually.
"Maybe somewhere down the road, but maybe it's not right now," he said. "And if I did run [in the Preakness], where would I be after this?"
Matz could skip both Pimlico races and shoot for the Ohio Derby in a few weeks. Or he could try the Barbaro and then, depending on the colt's performance, consider the Belmont.
"There are so many big races coming up that I don't need to get in a rush now," Matz said
All racing plans are in pencil. Nobody understands that more than Matz. If Chelokee ends up in the Barbaro, the name of the race will matter to the trainer.
Even now, Matz, like so many others who lived the Barbaro story, is amazed at the continued interest in the colt, more than 3 months after he was put down.
"It's unbelievable," he said. "It's way more than I ever thought it would be."
The letters keep coming. Matz has a folder in his car. One letter came from a 10-year-old orphan from Namibia who has AIDS.
"It would make you cry," Matz said.
This week is going to make a lot of people cry.
"You can't help but not remember it," Matz said. "But you've got to go on and say I'm lucky enough to have another nice colt. Obviously, he's not at the level that Barbaro was and maybe he never will be. But he looks like he's going in the right direction."
Looking back really depends on where you choose to place your focus: the Derby, the Preakness, the months at New Bolton or the end.
"We're sort of past the stage of what if that, what if this," Matz said. "The Jacksons [Barbaro's owners] were here [Saturday] and they said we have to go on and hopefully we get another good horse and hopefully we can have another ride of our lifetime. I agree with them."
His Derby experience almost went by too fast. Matz was so locked in on Barbaro that when his son asked to walk over with him before the race, Matz told his wife no, saying it was too busy.
"Then I got sitting over there thinking and I said, 'You know what, what if I never, ever do this again,' " Matz said. "I told him to come on over and he had a smile from ear-to-ear.
"The first year I went to the Olympic Games [1976 as a show jumper], I went up there [Montreal] and said, 'Oh, it's going to be crowded at the opening ceremonies, I'm not even going to go.' I didn't go. It took me 16 years to get back again. At Barcelona, I was the first one at the bus to go to the opening ceremonies."
It took a few days before another horse went into Barbaro's stall last May. New horses have been in and out ever since.