LOUISVILLE — Michael Matz understands why the question keeps popping up even as he repeatedly claims there is no great secret to be revealed.
The former Olympic show-jumper turned Kentucky Derby-winning trainer is known for his patience with developing horses, but the fact that his stable has been carried by precocious 2-year-olds of late has prompted more than one query about whether there's been a shift in tactics.
"A reporter asked me the same question in Saratoga and I said I haven't done anything different this year than I have other years," Matz recalled. "(Owner) Lee Bass came up to me and said, 'Don't tell them that! Tell them you've changed a lot of things to make them believe you're doing something different.' "
Indeed, there was no great change in philosophy that allowed a horse like Grade I winner Union Rags to come into Matz's care. And if the son of Dixie Union does what is expected of him in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Matz will be peppered with inquiries about the similarities between that colt and his former charge who had his best day at Churchill Downs.
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Five years after conditioning ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, Matz will be put the saddle on the horse who could become the winter-book favorite for the 2012 Run for the Roses. Union Rags is the 2-1 morning-line pick in the 11⁄16-mile Juvenile.
In addition to the undefeated winner of the Champagne Stakes, Matz also has a leading contender for the Juvenile Fillies Turf with Grade III winner Somali Lemonade.
That pair of juveniles have anchored what has become one of Matz's best seasons. His 37 winners through Monday have contributed to purse earnings of $1,805,121 — surpassing his total of $1,622,827 from all of 2010.
"These are nice horses and sometimes you just get lucky," Matz said. "I haven't been back to the Breeders' Cup since 2006 (with Distaff winner Round Pond) and I think I have two nice horses who have a shot. Just to know that you're bringing horses who are not just entering the races, but have a chance to do some good ... it's a lot of fun."
Success is welcome in any barn at any time. But the fact Matz can see such potential is something he is especially grateful for in the wake of what he lost this season.
After more than 10 years together, Roy and Gretchen Jackson — owners of Barbaro — parted ways with Matz in July in a move the trainer said he never saw coming. Considering they basked in the euphoria of Barbaro's Kentucky Derby triumph together and then leaned on one another through the agony of the colt's breakdown in the Preakness and subsequent death from laminitis, the split was a shock to many in the racing community as well.
The support of others like Union Rags' owner/breeder Phyllis Wyeth kept Matz's stable clicking along without missing a beat. Months later, however, Matz is still wondering where things between him and the Jacksons went awry.
"They said it was a business decision and left it at that," Matz said. "I couldn't tell you what brought it on. I guess it would be a little better if they could have told me what I did wrong.
"It hurt. It hurt a lot, I'm not going to say it didn't. But it's over with now and you have to start ... something new."
Roy Jackson's response soon after the split, as reported by Bloodhorse was, "We thought it was time for a change. We just wanted to go in a different direction. I'd rather not comment about it too much; we just sat down and talked about it. There are no hard feelings."
Right around the time of the parting, Union Rags was showing Matz what he had to look forward to.
The bay colt broke his maiden first time out by 13/4 lengths at Delaware Park on July 12 and then destroyed a field of five others by 71/4 lengths in the Grade II Saratoga Special on Aug. 15.
The real coming-out party for Union Rags' brilliance, though, came in the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 8. With jockey Javier Castellano up, Union Rags looked beaten when he lost position early and then couldn't find room on the inside to make his run in midstretch.
Showing both physical and mental ability beyond his years, the colt angled hard to the outside and exploded to a 51/4-length triumph.
"When you see him in the paddock you think, 'Is that a 2-year-old or a 3-year-old?' and he's so far got every quality that you would want in a good horse," Matz said. "He still acts like a baby but it's exciting to think you have this nice of a 2-year-old. You look ahead and think maybe he could be here in the spring."
Should Union Rags triumph Saturday, the comparisons to Barbaro will be inevitable as he marches down the Kentucky Derby trail. It's a path Matz is looking forward to even if he is taking a different journey to get there.
"I've had horses on and off for (Wyeth) for about the last five-six years but none of the quality this horse has been," Matz said. "I guess it's really a dream for all of us."