'Rags' reels one in for Barbaro's trainer Matz

Trainer Michael Matz, left, and jockey John Velazquez Trainer Michael Matz, left, and jockey John Velazquez hoist the trophy after Velazquez rode Union Rags to victory in the Belmont Stakes. (June 9, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Michael Matz knows helpless feelings. As Barbaro's trainer in 2006, he could only watch when that year's Kentucky Derby champion broke down just steps out of the starting gate two weeks later in the Preakness. He could only watch when the current horse he thought had strong Triple Crown possibilities, Union Rags, was bumped at the start of this year's Derby and had to rally from 18th to finish a mere seventh.

And Saturday, when Union Rags lived up to previous expectations by winning the 144th Belmont Stakes, Matz, 61, acted as if he were a virtual bystander. He said he "had nothing to do" with the decision of owner Phyllis Wyeth to buy Union Rags. He said Union Rags was "just so easy to train."

And the race strategy Saturday? "I didn't tell Johnny anything," Matz said of jockey Johnny Velazquez. "He told me. Listen, I've never ridden a race in my life."

Except Matz certainly knows horses. He was a three-time Olympian in the equestrian events. And it was Matz's decision not only to skip the Preakness, after Union Rags' disappointing Derby, but also to replace jockey Julien Leparoux with Velazquez, who is to enter the National Racing Hall of Fame later this year.

Besides, when Velazquez aimed Union Rags through an inside opening during his come-from-behind stretch run, Matz certainly felt like he was riding.

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"Believe me, I was riding!" he said. "My wife was riding, and my two kids were riding. Believe me!"

Though Union Rags went off as the second favorite, the Belmont already had lived up to its reputation as the Test of the Champion as, for the 12th time since Affirmed's 1978 Triple Crown sweep, the Derby-Preakness champ did not win here. Friday's scratch of favored I'll Have Another with tendinitis had assured that, for the 61st time in 64 years, there would be no Triple Crown winner -- though Matz insisted he found the race "pretty exciting" anyway.

"I do really think," Matz said, "that this horse, when he has a clean trip, can show himself as one of the best 3-year-olds in this crop. Whether he could have done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know. But it sure would've been fun to see."

Matz would not compare this victory to his other successful Triple Crown race, with Barbaro, who died eight months after his Preakness breakdown. "They're both great," he said. "I mean, it's hard to compare things like that. I think Barbaro was a great horse, and to win your first Triple Crown race is so fulfilling. And to have a horse like this and win the Belmont . . .

"The Preakness has just been hard on me; I don't know. We thought Barbaro was a horse that would win the Triple Crown, especially after he won the Derby as easily as he had. You know, the hopes always are there. And I knew how good this horse was."

Likewise, Matz's role as trainer contrasts with the equestrian experience, though both are about the human-equine partnership. That's because, Matz said, "while it's you and the horse" in equestrian, "at least when I would ride, I had something to say about it. It's frustrating sometimes, when I do put the jockey on, that I have no control whatsoever."

Saturday, though, he didn't feel quite so helpless.

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