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Motion, Matz, and the variable of fate

BALTIMORE - At the Fair Hill Training Center, a pastoral horse-racing incubator just over the Pennsylvania border in northeast Maryland, the barns and stables run by Graham Motion, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, are at one end of the complex and those of trainer Michael Matz are at the other.

JIM DIETZ / Associated Press
JIM DIETZ / Associated PressRead more

BALTIMORE - At the Fair Hill Training Center, a pastoral horse-racing incubator just over the Pennsylvania border in northeast Maryland, the barns and stables run by Graham Motion, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, are at one end of the complex and those of trainer Michael Matz are at the other.

They are friends cut from the same saddlecloth; honest, clean trainers with horsemanship experience spread across the spectrum of racing. Their backgrounds are a mixture of training soundly for grass and dirt, for everything from steeplechase to Olympic equestrian events, for giving the same careful attention to a maiden claimer as to a stakes horse.

During the winter, when Motion and Matz stable side-by-side at Gulfstream Park in Florida, they see each other every day. This time of year, when both are based at Fair Hill but their horses have them traveling the Northeast corridor, they will meet up a few times a week at the complex's training track and exchange shoptalk while their horses go through morning gallops.

Matz was among the group of Fair Hill colleagues who greeted Motion upon his return from Churchill Downs. A Kentucky Derby winner doesn't get off the van every day, and it is an exciting moment for everyone, but it has happened at Fair Hill before. No one, least of all Michael Matz, needs to be reminded of that.

It has been five years since Barbaro crushed the field in the Kentucky Derby and made his own triumphant descent down the van walkway at Fair Hill. There was the same excitement and perhaps an expectation that the enormous bay colt was about to do something very special in racing. But, of course, nothing is assured in this game.

"People don't understand what has to go right," Motion said. "It's almost unfair to even set out as a goal to win the Kentucky Derby, because everything has to align. Even if you've got the best horse and you're the best trainer or whatever, everything still has to go right."

Barbaro's story ended with the hardest of racing luck. He trained magnificently at Fair Hill between races and arrived at Pimlico looking like the fittest horse on earth. On a perfect late Saturday afternoon, he was loaded into the starting gate for the Preakness and broke through it prematurely before the start. After he was loaded back in, the field came away from the gate and somewhere in that thundering first two furlongs, Barbaro shattered his right hind leg.

It could have been a simple misstep. He might have clipped another horse. He might have been injured when he broke through the gate the first time. It is impossible to know. Jockey Edgar Prado pulled him to the far rail, leaped off, and cried on the horse's withers as Matz and the track veterinarians tried to calm the horse.

"One minute you're training the best 3-year-old in the country, and the next you're trying to save the best 3-year-old in the country," Matz said. "It's a hard thing, but it's part of it."

Motion watched the race from just within the infield rail near the finish line, rooting for his friend to make some more history, and then was stunned as the great horse limped to a stop just opposite where he stood.

"I watched the horse come through the gate, and I was devastated that that alone had happened," Motion said. "And then what happened two minutes later . . . it was a very emotional moment, because I know Michael so well. I just felt so bad for him."

Barbaro underwent successful surgery to save his leg, but he eventually succumbed the following January to complications resulting from the injury and the surgery. He was a great horse, perhaps the greatest of his generation, but he was tragically unlucky in a game that sometimes is based on little else.

Matz was running horses at Pimlico on the day of the Kentucky Derby this year, and he listened to the race on the radio as he was driving home, then watched the replay of Animal Kingdom's win after arriving at Fair Hill.

"Graham told me in Florida he liked the horse, but it was sort of an unknown commodity, and I know how difficult it is to get there," Matz said. "It was an impressive race, very powerful. They went so slow in the beginning, but he still had enough kick to outkick the field. He ran a big race, and I don't see why he can't duplicate it."

Had Motion known he would be bringing home a Kentucky Derby champion this year, he probably would have bet it would be Toby's Corner, the winner of the Wood Memorial. But Toby came up lame just before the Derby and went to the New Bolton Equine Center instead of Churchill Downs.

On Thursday, as Animal Kingdom went through another morning gallop at Fair Hill, Toby's Corner was walking under tack for the first time since his injury was discovered. Dean Richardson, the same New Bolton surgeon who battled to save Barbaro, read the nuclear bone scan on Toby's Corner and gave the OK for him to resume training.

If Animal Kingdom, the other horse in the barn, was a justifiable 20-1 long shot in the Derby - he had never raced on dirt and his biggest previous win was a Grade III stakes - he is also a legitimate morning-line favorite for the Preakness.

"Every year when you work a bunch of 2-year-olds, you always hope one of them gets to where you might be in the mix the next year," Matz said. "You know how lucky you have to be. I'm sure Graham would have picked the other horse before this horse just on reputation, but what he did was pretty impressive. He should be a fresh horse, and you know he can get the distance. It just comes down to whether you get a clean trip and a safe trip."

On one of their morning chats at the Fair Hill training track after the Derby, Motion asked Matz how he had approached preparation for the Preakness - the training schedule, when to ship the horse to Pimlico, just conversation about the different ways to approach it.

"It was a friend-to-friend thing, because ultimately I have to make those decisions," Motion said. "It comes down to keeping the horse right for Saturday, stay out of his way and not mess things up. There's not a whole lot I can do about the outcome. If he's good enough, he'll do it."

In the end, Motion decided to ship the horse to Baltimore before dawn on the day of the race. Five years ago, Matz opted to take Barbaro the day before to get a Saturday morning gallop on the track. Animal Kingdom will arrive by 6:30 a.m., walk for a half-hour, then spend most of the day in Stall 40 of the Pimlico Stakes Barn, the one reserved annually for the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

"I thought the benefit of shipping Saturday outweighed the benefit of shipping Friday. Let him stay in his own stall another 24 hours," Motion said. "It's what I've always done, and why would I want to change it for this horse?"

Winning the Kentucky Derby does changes things, though, and it's a strong trainer who keeps it from changing him as well. Michael Matz was like that, the same in victory and defeat, and that also applies to Graham Motion.

He will load his horse at Fair Hill and drive to Baltimore, taking the roads that others have taken before. Animal Kingdom will arrive, be tended to, and then will be saddled and led out into the noise and that smell of the race that he was bred to know. His ears will prick forward, the gate will clang open, and then the big chestnut colt will try.

"Beyond that," Motion said, "I just think a certain amount of it is fate."