BALTIMORE - Standing in the back of the Pimlico Race Course winner's circle, Roy Jackson gave a thumb's-up as soon as Chelokee passed by the finish line. Jackson's first words:
couldn't have worked out better.
"Ironic, isn't it?" Jackson said after a horse trained by Barbaro's trainer won the inaugural Barbaro Stakes by 43/4 lengths.
Roy and Gretchen Jackson don't own Chelokee, but it was hard to tell that this afternoon, as the owners of the late 2006 Kentucky Derby winner presented the Barbaro Stakes trophy to Michael Matz, who walked in the winner's circle, then stopped suddenly as soon as he saw Gretchen Jackson. He turned and gave her a hug.
"It's a great honor to win the first race named after a horse that you trained," Matz said after the trophy presentation. "It's pretty big for me, to have a horse like Barbaro, and what he gave everybody. It means a lot."
For this whole group, it was the first time back to Pimlico since Barbaro broke down in last year's Preakness.
"It just happened that way," Matz said. "I don't hold anything against the racetrack, that's for sure. It just didn't present itself for me to come back."
Back at the Stakes Barn, Peter Brette, Matz's assistant, said it was "actually quite nice to come back and win a race. Give us all a bit of closure, I think. It's bittersweet really, isn't it? But at least [Chelokee] came and he won. That's the main thing."
Matz was back watching the race from the same grandstand as last year. Brette stood inside watching the race on a television screen.
"I was in exactly the same place as I was when Barbaro ran here," Brette said.
Asked if he keep thoughts of Barbaro out of his head, Brette said that was impossible. As he watched the race on a bank of television screens, another one of the screens was showing a clip from NBC's Barbaro documentary. "You just couldn't help it," Brette said. "I think it was running continuously."
"If you think about it, right out there was the spot where Barbaro's career ended - but that was '06," Gretchen Jackson said. "I don't want to sound hard-hearted at all, because I sat and cried through the NBC [documentary] that they put on the big screen for all of us to watch. But I'm no longer distraught about that.
"I like to remember Barbaro as a racehorse and it seems like that's the way I do remember him, and not the tragedy. ... I didn't even think about it - didn't do it. My daughter said on the way home [last year] that she swore she'd never come back here. But look at her." Her daughter Lucy had her own two young daughters by the rail, looking at the pony that had accompanied Chelokee to the track, the same pony that had accompanied Barbaro last year.
"She's able to move on," Gretchen Jackson said.
Life is busier than ever at the Matz barn. It's the time of year when 2-year-olds start showing up, and Matz expects about 50 of them this year, about half from previous owners and half from new ones.
"And he's turning them down on a daily basis, literally," Brette said.
The biggest focus right now is on Chelokee, ridden yesterday by Ramon Dominguez, owned by a Centennial Farms, a Boston syndicate.
"It was the right race for him," Brette said. "I'm positive he'll go on to bigger and better things. We've made no bones that we've had trouble with his feet. I think he's a genuine Grade One horse."
Matz said they don't rule out any races, including the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.
"Maybe see you in New York," Brette said with a smile. "I think we'll get him back and see how he is. A Grade One is obviously going to be the next step."
The Barbaro Stakes provided the poignant feel-good story, but then the crowd watching the next race, the 106th Dixie Stakes, let out a loud collective gasp. A colt named Mending Fences, out in front of the race, went down just before the last turn.
It was reported later that the horse had sustained multiple fractures in his front right foot, and the bone had broken through the skin. A curtain went up and Mending Fences was put down on the track. Pimlico's equine ambulance took his remains away.