NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Matz deserved this one.
He started the year believing he had another horse who might have a shot at breaking the three-decades-and-then-some drought since the last Triple Crown, a hulking bay colt named Union Rags.
But if anyone knows how fragile this sport can be – how fragile life can be – it’s Michael Matz.
Union Rags got knocked around coming out of the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby, staggering like a punch-drunk fighter, his bid for victory essentially over before it ever began. He labored home in seventh place and didn’t race in the Preakness, resting up for the longest and most grueling of the three races, the Belmont Stakes.
But fate turned in Matz’s favor Saturday.
With I’ll Have Another back in the barn – enjoying his first full day of retirement instead of trying to win the first Triple Crown since 1978 – Union Rags showed he was truly the kind of horse Matz always thought he could be.
“We just got to see the real Union Rags,” Matz said.
He’s economical with his words, even more so with his smiles.
To some, he comes across as curt. Even a bit moody.
Maybe that’s because his life, a success by any measure and brightened by some truly memorable highs like carrying the U.S. flag at the closing ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, has also been darkened by some harrowing close calls and grim lows.
He was on United Flight 232 when it lost hydraulic power and cartwheeled into an Iowa cornfield in 1989. Matz survived and made sure others did, too, but even his heroic rescue efforts didn’t prevent more than 100 people from dying that day.
He watched his last Triple Crown contender, the undefeated Barbaro, win the Kentucky Derby in 2006 but shatter a leg two weeks later at the Preakness, a gruesome injury that would eventually cut short the gallant horse’s life.
Now, along comes Union Rags.
With the reins turned over to jockey John Velazquez, the horse lagged along at a leisurely pace for much of the mile-and-a-half marathon, biding his time while Paynter set the pace right out of the starting gate. Going into the far turn, Union Rags began to kick it into another gear. Then, coming down the stretch in front of the massive grandstand packed with more than 85,000 screaming fans, he hugged the rail and looked for his opening.
It barely existed, but the giant horse wasn’t going to be denied this time. Velazquez guided the head next to Paynter’s left hind quarters, which seemed to spook the leader, who veered slightly to the right. Union Rags muscled right on through, passing Paynter as they glided past the “Belmont Park” sign, putting a nose in front at the pole.
It was a photo finish, but there was no doubt who won.
“It didn’t look like he was going to get through,” Matz said. “Yeah, I was worried.”
This time, it went his way.
“We always felt like this horse had Triple Crown potential,” Matz said. “I really do think this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, he is one of the best 3-year-olds of his crop.”
He celebrated in the winner’s circle with Union Rag’s owner, Phyllis Wyeth, who has been confined to a wheelchair since 2001, the result of car wreck a half-century ago. Matz had continued to train horses for Roy and Gretchen Jackson after Barbaro’s death, but they parted ways last summer after a decade together.
Wyeth never had any doubts about entrusting Union Rags – a horse she had sold and repurchased – to Matz.
“I knew Michael could do it,” she said. “It was my dream and he made it come true today. He and Johnny. I knew he could do it. And nobody would have gotten through on the rail other than Johnny today, I can tell you that. That was unbelievable. He just said, `Move over, I’m coming.’ He believed in the horse. And Michael got him there.”
Surely, there were thoughts of Barbaro as Matz watched another of his horses take another Triple Crown race.
“They’re both great,” he said. “It’s hard to compare things like that. Obviously, Barbaro was a great horse. To win your first Triple Crown race, it couldn’t have been more fulfilling. Then to come back with a horse like this and win the Belmont … I feel very fortunate to have two horses like this.”
The more immediate comparison was to I’ll Have Another, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but was stunningly scratched from the Belmont Stakes about 30 hours before post time because of a fraying tendon. We’ll never know what might have happened if the favorite’s left front leg had held up for one more race.
“Whether he could have done something against I’ll Have Another, I don’t know,” Matz said. “But it sure would’ve been fun to see.”
He managed a bit of a smile.
Not much. But a definite smile.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 .