There was no doubt that Michael Matz was the man of the hour at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May.
Now the question is: will Matz be the man of the hour at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of November?
After a long and successful career as an equestrian rider, Olympics hero and thoroughbred trainer, Matz became an overnight sensation last spring when he saddled Barbaro to a 6 ½-length victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Barbaro now spends his days at the New Bolton Center, outside Philadelphia, as he continues well on the road to a remarkable recovery after suffering a broken leg in the Preakness.
Now the Big Horse in the Matz barn is a mare – the 4-year-old multiple stakes-winner Round Pond, who figures to be a major player in Saturday’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs.
Round Pond, who has been no worse than third (6-2-2) in 10 starts, showed yesterday that she is ready for the toughest assignment of her career when she drilled five furlongs in :59 over the polytrack at Keeneland.
Following the work, Round Pond and trainer Matz made the hour-long drive west to Churchill Downs, and that’s where we caught up with Matz this morning.
A $105,000 daughter of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, Round Pond won three stakes at Oaklawn Park, as well as the Grade One Acorn at Belmont Park, for trainer John Servis.
In one of the year’s more stunning moves, owner Rick Porter, a semi-retired Delaware Valley auto dealer, took his horses from Servis last April, and distributed them among a half-dozen east coast trainers.
Matz, fresh from winning the Derby with Barbaro, got Round Pond.
Battling foot problems, Round Pond has started only twice for Matz. She missed by a head in the Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park. Then, sent off as the 4-1 third choice in the Beldame at Belmont, she made the lead turning for home, but faded through the lane to finish third, beaten seven lengths, by Fleet Indian, who will be the favorite in the Distaff.
“Round Pond missed an important work prior to the Beldame,” Matz told me this morning, “and it showed. Edgar (Prado) told me she got a little tired toward the end, but asked me if he could ride her back in the Breeders’ Cup.
“The fact that Edgar (the Derby-winning rider for Matz) wanted to stay on Round Pond encourages me.
“Now we just have to figure out a way to make up seven lengths.”
Matz meanwhile is disappointed that Barbaro won’t be making the Classic.
“Like everyone else,” he said, “I would have loved to see Barbaro challenge Bernardini in the Classic. Bernardini is a wonderful horse, and it would have made a great matchup. Obviously…it’s not going to happen.”
Matz did say that Barbaro continues to make excellent progress at New Bolton.
“Barbaro is doing very well,” Matz said. “He’s eating good, and he gets out in the field once or twice a day. The prognosis for his recovery is very positive.”
Whereas Barbaro, if not for his tragic misfortune, would have been no worse than second choice in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Round Pond will be a price in the Distaff, which top to bottom, is the deepest of the eight B.C. races.
Summerly, the 2005 Kentucky Oaks winner, is an also-eligible, and Lemons Forever, the 2006 Kentucky Oaks winner, will be 40-1!
Trainer Pletcher holds a strong hand with Fleet Indian, Spun Sugar and Pool Land. That goes without saying. It would surprise no one if the Toddster runs 1-2-3 in the race. Nor would it surprise if he gets blanked.
Maybe the Distaff will be a rematch of Oaklawn’s Azeri Breeders’ Cup (the Race of the Year) in which Round Pond and Happy Ticket raced head-to-head from gate to wire. Or a rematch of the same track’s Apple Blossom when Spun Sugar stormed back along the rail to nip Happy Ticket.
Speaking of Happy Ticket, there was a point last spring where Happy Ticket was regarded as the best older filly in training. But her stock has plummeted in the wake of one hard-luck defeat after another.
On the other hand, back in the spring, Pine Island had done nothing more than break her maiden at Gulfstream Park at a $60 mutuel. But she has emerged as the best 3-year-old filly in the land via victories in the Alabama and Gazelle, and it would surprise no one if she blows away the classy older fillies for Phipps/McGaughey in the Distaff.
Much like they did with Pleasant Home at $63 in this race last year at Belmont.
The Breeders’ Cup sustained its first casualty yesterday when Untouched Talent, seen as a major player in the Juvenile Fillies, came down sick and was scratched.
As a result, Lily Carson drew into the race, and clearly will be a pace factor at the least. And Bernie Flint scratched Cohiba Miss, a daughter of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Cat Thief, from yesterday’s Pocahontas in hopes she can scratch into the Distaff.
If Cohiba Miss, now No. 1 on the waiting list, does get in, no doubt she’ll be a player.
With the defection of Untouched Talent, it looks like Cash Included (Nakatani) and Dreaming of Anna (Douglas) will vie for favoritism in the Juvenile Fillies.
It took just two races for Cash Included to go from a no-shot fourth at 42-1 in her debut to a blowout winner of the Grade One Oak Leaf at Santa Anita.
Dreaming of Anna is unbeaten in three starts, but two of those three wins came on the grass.
One word about the Sprint:
You’ll want to give the outside horses the edge over the inside runners. The outside traditionally is the place to be going short at Churchill, and only one horse (Smile) has won the Sprint in Breeders’ Cup history.
Smile was awarded the Eclipse off that race, which was a grave injustice. The filly Lazer Show was the best and fastest sprinter to perform that year.
I’ve been a fan of Henny Hughes from the getgo, but his :51 half-mile yesterday at Belmont is not the way I want to see a horse come into the Sprint. After seeing the draw, I may change my mind, but I do believe that Henny Hughes will be one of the more vulnerable favorites on Saturday.
Coincidentally, the Breeders’ Cup will have to share the Louisville (and ESPN) spotlight this weekend.
On Thursday evening, West Virginia and Louisville will hook up in the first Top Five battle of the college football season. The game will be played on Louisville’s home stadium, just off its campus…and less than two miles from the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
I’m thinking if West Virginia beats Louisville (and wins out), and Ohio State beats Michigan on Nov. 18, then Ohio State will play West Virginia for the national championship on Jan. 8 in Arizona.
In that case…better the game should be played in Pittsburgh!