LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Michael Matz and his assistants are tired of the question — most trainers and riders are by this point in the week before the country's most talked-about horse race — and give mostly a perfunctory answer.
"He's just a really nice horse," exercise rider Peter Brette said of Union Rags, one of the favorites to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. "He's a nice, classy horse."
He's also the most scrutinized in a field that fascinates even the sport's longtime observers. Union Rags passes every look test and has failed to win only two of his five races, by a total of 1½ lengths.
The way he faltered in those races has been the topic of much discussion, though. Seemingly the best horse in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November at Churchill Downs and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach in late March, he controlled neither race and, worse, appeared to shy from making his move when he needed to.
"We realize that what we see as real excuses other people might see it a different way," Brette said.
Matz and the rest of Union Rags' connections believe the horse was boxed in during the Florida Derby by a small field that conspired to hinder the heavy favorite (he finished third). At the Breeders' Cup, the colt fought traffic, then suddenly veered right when he should have been making his winning run (he finished second).
But Matz feels confident Saturday's race will break differently. Union Rags is the 9-2 second choice to Bodemeister (4-1).
"Every other horse here isn't going to be racing on one horse," Matz said. "We're going to have a chance to run our race."
Matz has acknowledged feeling nostalgic this week. He's back in the barn where Barbaro, whom he also trained, spent the days leading up to a runaway win in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Injured in the Preakness, Barbaro — undefeated until faltering at Pimlico Race Course — died of laminitis eight months later.
"They're both big, good-looking, fast and athletic," Matz said. "(Union Rags) still has to live up to what Barbaro did."
Part of Barbaro's mystique came from Matz, a three-time Olympian who won a silver medal and carried the U.S. flag in the closing ceremony at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. His teammates chose him for the honor in part because of his heroism after a plane crash in 1989.
Matz and his now wife, D.D. Alexander, had missed their connection to Philadelphia and opted to take United Airlines Flight 232, which plummeted to the ground in Iowa after its engines failed. Matz survived, led three unaccompanied children to safety and went back into the wreckage to save an 11-month-old baby.
Since losing Barbaro, Matz, 61, has received few promising colts. He has had only one other Derby starter, 12th-place Visionaire in 2008. His career has come to be defined by Barbaro. For him to allow Union Rags to be mentioned with Barbaro signifies how strongly he feels.