LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When a horse leaves the kind of impression that Barbaro left here two years ago, and his trainer returns for the Kentucky Derby for the first time, the line of questioning is inevitable.
Michael Matz is duly prepared. Matz, who trained Barbaro to win the 2006 Derby, accompanied Visionaire to and from the track Monday morning for a five-furlong workout, after which he returned to Barn 42 to find the usual phalanx of cameras and reporters, many of whom were curious about his memories of Churchill and the Derby.
Barbaro won the Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, the largest margin in 60 years, but in his next race, the Preakness, the colt suffered a fractured hind leg that ultimately led to him being euthanized eight months later.
"I have happy memories with what he did and what he accomplished," said Matz. "I hope to have the same feeling Saturday. I'm really glad to be back. Anytime you're back here, you're in the right situation."
Visionaire, owned by Team Valor International and Vision Racing, will be just the second Derby starter for Matz. A Grand Slam colt who won the Gotham Stakes two starts back, Visionaire closed well to finish fifth in his latest race, the Blue Grass Stakes.
"He's been unbelievable, any track he's run on," said Matz. "At the end of the Blue Grass, he was the only one gaining on the leaders."
As for the Monday work, which came with Visionaire chasing and catching his stablemate Novel Twist in a five-furlong breeze timed in 1:01.20, Matz said he used a workmate as a target because Visionaire is not a particularly good work horse.
Matz is one of just three trainers in this Derby to have won the race. Nick Zito, with Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994), and Barclay Tagg with Funny Cide (2003) are the others.
Big Truck motors during work
Big Truck motored through his final Derby workout Monday, going his first three furlongs in 34.58 seconds en route to a final five-furlong time of 59.36 seconds. Exercise rider Kristen Troxell was up for the move, which was the fastest of 22 at the distance.
Tagg said he wanted a strong work from Big Truck, telling Troxell to go in around a minute. Despite the fast time, Tagg said he was pleased with the move.
"The reason I told her to go in a minute was because I didn't want to go too fast, but I didn't want her to go in 1:02 either, because he won't get enough out of it," Tagg said. "If she thinks she's going in a minute and [Big Truck] goes a little faster, I'll be all right, but she did it just right."
Big Truck, who won the Tampa Bay Derby in March, is coming off an 11th-place finish in the Blue Grass. Tagg is hoping that Big Truck just didn't care for Keeneland's Polytrack, though he did appeared to handle it in the morning.
"He handled it going a half-mile in the morning, but I guess it was looser for him in the afternoon and he didn't like it," Tagg said.
Tagg's other Derby starter, Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati, galloped a strong 1 1/2 miles Monday under Troxell, who had a hard time getting the colt pulled up.
"I'd rather see that than see him walking around half-dead," said Tagg.
Stutts breathing easier
After spending several sleepless nights fretting over the health of his Kentucky Derby contender Smooth Air, trainer Benny Stutts Jr. was finally looking forward to getting some rest on Monday. Earlier that morning, Smooth Air returned to a somewhat normal training routine for the first time since spiking a slight temperature on Thursday evening.
"He was back to his old self out there today," Stutts said shortly after watching Smooth Air jog and gallop nearly two miles under exercise rider Susie Milne.
"I didn't sleep a wink for two days after he got sick, and I wouldn't run him in the Derby if he wasn't 100 percent. But from what I saw out there this morning he's good now and ready to go on Saturday."
Smooth Air will be the first Kentucky Derby starter for Stutts, 70, who is stabled year-round at Calder Race Course. Stutts had originally scheduled a work for Smooth Air on Sunday but had to adjust that schedule after his colt became ill.
"I'll extend his gallops on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Thursday he'll blow out a quarter-mile down the stretch at the end of his gallop. That's all he needs," said Stutts. "I really don't have to do more with him. He had plenty of work in Florida before we got here, and he's plenty fit and ready to run."
- additional reporting by David Grening, Marty McGee, Jay Privman, Mike Welsch