LOUISVILLE -- There were questions about the five-week layoff, about whether he could take dirt in his face, about whether he was just a turf horse who hit the ground too hard. At the top of the stretch, Barbaro answered them all, and as he drew away from 19 overmatched rivals, his connections and backers yelled "Yes!"
The long-striding son of Dynaformer turned the 132nd Kentucky Derby into a runaway Saturday afternoon, kicking clear by 6 1/2-lengths. It was the most lopsided Derby victory since Assault aired by eight in 1946. In the 60 years since, not even the immortals Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed dominated the Derby the way Barbaro did.
Coming to the quarter-pole, the big colt took the lead, and jockey Edgar Prado looked left. No danger there, or to his right, either, and off they went. At the eighth pole, the final question was not who would win, but by how much. "At that point, I was very happy," trainer Michael Matz said. "I just said, 'Don't fall down.' I just couldn't be more pleased."
For the fourth straight year, a trainer won with his first Derby runner, as Matz joined Barclay Tagg (Funny Cide, 2003), John Servis (Smarty Jones, 2004) and John Shirreffs (Giacomo, 2005) as rookies of the year. Barbaro is only the sixth unbeaten Derby winner but is the second in three years, along with Smarty Jones.
"We never wavered from the plan that my assistant [exercise rider Peter Brette] and I made for this horse,'' Matz said, "and it looks like it worked."
Now Matz not only has survived a plane crash, won a silver medal as an equestrian at the 1996 Summer Olympics and carried the flag at the Closing Ceremonies, but he's also won America's Race.
"Well, they all are different," he said, "but they all are very exciting." That's a bit of an understatement, coming after winning racing's most prestigious trophy in front of a howling mob of 157,536, second-largest in Derby history.
"I couldn't see how one week was going to make a difference," he said. "No horseman said anything to me about it. The only people who did were the press."
Not much was happening behind Barbaro in the final quarter-mile, but 30-1 shot Bluegrass Cat was best of the rest, getting second by two lengths over deep closer Steppenwolfer (16-1), with Jazil (24-1) and morning-line favorite Brother Derek (7-1) dead-heating for fourth a length farther back. Even with the second betting choice on top, the exotics were astronomical. The exacta paid $587; the trifecta was worth $11,418.40; the superfecta with Brother Derek returned $59,839 and the super with Jazil came back $84,860.40.
Sweetnorthernsaint, the post-time favorite at 5-1, was seventh, and Lawyer Ron 12th. Bob Baffert was denied his fourth Derby as his trio of Point Determined, Sinister Minister and Bob and John plodded in ninth, 16th and 17th, respectively.
"Sinister Minister got cooked on the lead," Baffert said. "Bob and John had a really rough trip and Point Determined didn't run his race. We weren't going to beat the winner. He was awesome. I was hoping he was a turf horse."
Even though this was only Barbaro's third race on dirt, and just his second on a fast track, he was just as smooth as he was in the three grass races that began his career. Except for a hiccup at the start, Barbaro had a dream trip. "He stumbled a little bit coming out of the gate, but he recovered right away," Prado said.
Barbaro moved up to fourth, then to third, in the 3-path, stalking the cheap speed, co-leaders Keyed Entry and Sinister Minister. The pace was fairly quick - 22.63, 46.07, 1:10.88 - but the winner maintained his high cruising speed as the front-runners quit. Then it was time to blow the race open.
"I looked back a few times and didn't see anybody. You saw what he did when I turned him loose," Prado said. "He took off like a rocket. I never had any doubt about what kind of horse he was. He always seemed very comfortable. Now I just hope we can win a Triple Crown."
Barbaro paid $14.20 for his sixth victory after going 1 1/4-miles in 2:01.36, with a final fraction in a very quick 24.34 seconds. He earned $1,453,200 for owner-breeder Roy Jackson and his wife, Gretchen, who achieved a unique trans-Atlantic daily double. On Saturday morning, the Jacksons and their family watched on TV as another colt they bred, George Washington, won the 2,000 Guineas, the first of the English classics, at Newmarket.
"For some reason," Gretchen Jackson said, "Barbaro has given us terrific confidence all along. I think I've been really nutty about it, but I truly thought he was going to win this Derby."
Very quietly, Matz felt the same way.
When asked if he was worried about his star Saturday, Matz said, "Distance-wise, no, and I never thought the five weeks would be a problem. There were a lot of good horses in there, but today was his day."