Barbaro appears to be a breed apart
Barbaro goes for a leisurely stroll yesterday in Elkton, Md., with a friend. (KRT Photo / Barbara L. Johnson)
BALTIMORE -- It's not that he won the Kentucky Derby. One hundred thirty-one horses did that before him. It was how Barbaro did it -- easily, effortlessly, with a style that suggested . . .
''Something special," said Michael Matz, his trainer. ''It was a tremendous race for him. He trained well for the race and we're glad he didn't disappoint us."
But it is more than that. It wasn't that Barbaro won the Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, the largest winning margin in 60 years. And it wasn't that jockey Edgar Prado didn't even have to use the whip in guiding the dark bay/brown colt through a crowded, 20-horse field.
And it wasn't that Barbaro is unbeaten in six races as a 3-year-old, and has looked better each time out.
And it isn't that horse racing is hungry, make that starving, for a Triple Crown winner, something it hasn't had since 1978, when Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, although, truth be told, the fuss that is building around Barbaro has a great deal to do with the Triple Crown drought.
And it wasn't that Barbaro seems to adjust to any track conditions with ease. He's won on turf, he's won on dirt, he's won in the slop.
But, as Chapter 2 of horse racing's showcase trilogy takes place tomorrow with the 131st running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, and Barbaro enters the race as an even-money morning-line favorite, it is more than all of that.
It is part performance and part breeding. Barbaro's father, Dynaformer, had the distance genes, and his mother, La Ville Rouge, had the speed pedigree.
Dynaformer raced for three years, with 30 starts, seven wins, and $671,207 in earnings. He sired 652 starters, 484 winners, and 74 stakes winners.
La Ville Rouge raced for three years, with 25 starts, six wins, and $262,594 in earnings. She was the dam of three named foals, with two starters, two winners, and two stakes winners.
Barbaro's family tree also includes Carson City, a speed horse, Hail to Reason, which showed an affinity for distance, and Mr. Prospector, which excelled in both areas.
''A good combination of speed and distance," said Matz of Barbaro, at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., 60 miles from Pimlico.
Not even Matz can explain all the positives that are coming together at the right time. When asked why Barbaro seems to adjust equally well to turf and dirt, Matz shook his head.
''Nobody knows," he said. ''He has a big heart. He has a terrific stride. He's very willing. But nobody knows. If I knew that, I'd buy horses for myself and become a millionaire."
Winning the Kentucky Derby puts a horse in a club that guarantees only one thing. It is the only one that can win the Triple Crown that year, which is hardly an easy proposition, since it has been done just 11 times.
No Triple Crown winners since 1978 and only three since 1948. Yet six times in the last nine years a horse has gone to the Belmont with an opportunity to accomplish the triple.
Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, in 1919, won the Kentucky Derby easily but was challenged in the Preakness, which was run just four days later.
In 1930, Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown and set a 3-year-old earnings record of $308,275, an incredible amount for that time. He also sired 90 winners, including 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha.
In 1937, Triple Crown winner War Admiral went 8 for 8 as a 3-year-old. He won 21 of 26 career races and was out of the money only once.
In 1943, Count Fleet finished his Triple Crown journey with a 25-length victory in the Belmont, bettered only by Secretariat's 31-length romp 30 years later.
And in 1977, Seattle Slew became the last horse to go undefeated in his Triple Crown year, something Smarty Jones failed to do in 2004 and Barbaro is attempting this year.
Matz does not hide his hopes for Barbaro. ''I'd love this horse to win the Triple Crown," he said. ''I think he's that good."
People noticed Barbaro was special right away. Matz remembers looking at some horses owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson in Florida two years ago. Matz saw one he liked but was told, ''You should see his brother."
The brother, of course, was Barbaro. ''He trained well as a 2-year-old and we expected him to run a very good race in his debut," said Matz. ''But sometimes horses train well and they never run well, but thank goodness his training was very true to his race and he trained well and ran well. And he's just never sort of missed a beat."
''It's impossible not to imagine [Barbaro] might be good enough to do the unthinkable," said Steve Asmussen, who trains Storm Treasure, a 50-1 shot who finished 11th in the Derby but is not entered in the Preakness. ''I don't want to mention it, I wouldn't want to jinx him. I remember watching Smarty getting beat. Why did that bother me so much? When one is that good, you don't want to see him lose."
Asmussen has seen the best of Barbaro and, like everyone else, is impressed. ''It doesn't matter what he wears or eats," said Asmussen. ''He's still the fastest kid in school."
Nick Zito, who trains Preakness challenger Hemingway's Key, suggests Barbaro's attitude is also different. ''He doesn't know what it means to lose," said Zito.
That is also part of the lure. Barbaro is the true royalty at the Preakness. He won't arrive until this afternoon.
Barbaro's first victory came in his first start, at Delaware Park in October, and he was impressive from the moment the gates opened in the maiden special weight mile trip on the turf. Trainer Steve Klesaris, who will challenge Barbaro with Diabolical tomorrow, saw it up close and personal. ''I saw a lot of talent that day," he said. ''Then in the Laurel Futurity, I knew he was a horse who had to be reckoned with."
Diabolical had to deal with Barbaro for the first time in the Laurel Futurity in November and was a well-beaten second. ''I knew immediately that Diabolical ran against a superior horse," said Klesaris.
The Triple Crown dream could be over by 6:30 tomorrow night, or it could be bigger than ever, but Barbaro already has one jewel in his stable with the Derby.
''It's something that they can't take away from him," said Matz. ''He'll always be the Kentucky Derby winner. We'll just try and get through this one and go from here."