LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Michael Matz is back at the Kentucky Derby with a strong contender for the first time since he won in 2006 with Barbaro, whose bronze likeness now greets all visitors to Churchill Downs.
Bob Baffert is a regular at the Derby, a three-time winner who has been looking for No. 4 since 2002. Only this year, he returns a changed man. A heart attack has a way of doing that.
Either trainer could have the favorite for Saturday’s big race.
Matz trains Union Rags, who has never finished worse than third, while Baffert’s top horse among his two runners is Bodemeister, named after his 7-year-old son Bode.
Wrenching as it might be to recall Barbaro’s tragic end – he broke down in the Preakness and, despite a valiant fight, was euthanized nine months later – Matz doesn’t try to temper his delight to be back in the Run for the Roses.
“It’s a great feeling to be here after six years, especially with a horse that has a good chance,” Matz said. “This doesn’t happen too many times, and I was lucky enough once. It’s hard to believe you can get lucky twice.”
Baffert knows you can.
His lifestyle of eating fried food and lots of meat, combined with already high cholesterol, caught up with him last month. He fell ill and was rushed to a hospital, where surgeons inserted three stents in two arteries.
“It was a pretty big scare for him,” said Bernie Schiappa. “He thought he was going to check out.”
“I wouldn’t listen,” Baffert said, understating that he’s “a little hard-headed.”
When his family isn’t around, Baffert has Schiappa to keep him on the straight and narrow. In Louisville, the duo has been hitting the hotel gym at 5:30 a.m. to exercise. Baffert does 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer followed by light weights.
“I’m training him, he’s training the horses,” Schiappa said.
Bodemeister’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, sees in Baffert a new contentment.
“He doesn’t have to get everything done perfect,” Zayat said. “His demeanor is telling me that ‘I’m happy to have a second chance and now I’m going to try to enjoy it and try not to stress myself.’ ”