- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Following a peaceful walk from Barn 42 to the Churchill Downs paddock and a tranquil post parade that has thrown many horses for a loop through the years, yesterday’s Kentucky Derby was setting up perfectly for Sweetnorthernsaint.

But just as his gelding was being placed in the starting gate, Sweetnorthernsaint trainer Michael Trombetta glanced across the track to the scoreboard and what he saw shook him up.

The horse who ran in a claiming race this winter, who had never run in — much less won — a Grade I race was the Derby post-time favorite (5-1).

“That messed me up,” Trombetta said. “I would have rather been the second choice.”

Chances are it wouldn’t have mattered. That’s how good Barbaro, the real second choice, was in front of the second-largest crowd in Derby history (157,536).

While Sweetnorthernsaint got no closer than third place around the second turn, Barbaro proved to be the best among the accomplished 20-horse field, winning the 132nd Derby by 6 lengths, the most convincing win since Assault’s eight-length triumph in 1946.

Sweetnorthernsaint flattened out after his initial burst and finished seventh. Only three favorites since 1980 have won the Derby.

“I thought we had a chance at the turn to at least get a significant piece of it,” Trombetta said after his Derby debut. “I don’t think he did poorly.”

As Trombetta dissected the race, another Derby rookie trainer was celebrating in the winner’s circle.

“Good horses make good riders and good horses make good trainers,” Barbaro trainer Michael Matz said after he became the fourth consecutive Derby rookie to win the roses.

Covering the mile-and-a-quarter in 2:01.39, Barbaro paid $14.20, $8.00 and $6.20. Bluegrass Cat and Steppenwolfer closed out the top three, followed by Jazil and Brother Derek in a tie for fourth.

Barbaro is the sixth undefeated Derby champion and the first horse in 50 years to win after a five-week break.

“When I let him loose, he took off like a rocket,” said Edgar Prado, the former Maryland riding champion. “I never had a doubt about the kind of horse he was. You can see why he’s a very nice horse. Hopefully now we can get the Triple Crown.”

Next up for Barbaro: the Preakness on May 20. Since 1997, six horses have won the Derby and Preakness, only to fall short in the Belmont. Barbaro is 6-for-6 and Seattle Slew in 1977 was the last unblemished Triple Crown winner.

Sweetnorthernsaint, based at Laurel Park for much of the spring, also will be pointed toward Pimlico Race Course.

“I’m optimistic that if he’s healthy and he’s well, there’s no reason to back off now,” Trombetta said. “If we had been way, way, way back, that would be a different story.”

Sweetnorthernsaint broke well from post No. 11 and was in mid-pack as the field crossed the start-finish line the first time.

As expected, Sinister Minister and Keyed Entry engaged in a speed duel, running the opening quarter-mile in 22.63 seconds. And as expected, none of the speed horses figured in the finish.

Stalkers finished first and second, closers were third and tied for fourth.

Under jockey Kent Desormeaux, Sweetnorthernsaint’s lone move came on the backstretch when he ran to the outside of the speedy leaders. But the second gear he showed in the Illinois Derby was missing.

“He gave me the ride I was hoping for,” Desormeaux said. “He was keen to go on a little bit after the first 3/16th mile, but I gave him a little pull and it was like he said, I’ll stay right here.’

“With that wonderful, galloping pace that I know he has, he was passing horses with no effort. But when I loomed to third and asked him a little bit, there was nothing there.”

There was no tiring Barbaro even though he was close to the pace.

The only anxious moment for Team Barbaro was the start, when he appeared to stumble out of his No. 8 gate. But he quickly recovered and was fifth after the opening quarter and fourth at the race’s halfway point.

“He was doing everything so easy and I felt so comfortable,” said Prado, who won his first Derby. “Down the back side, I picked another hole and I felt even better about him. Those horses in front of me didn’t concern me.”

Without using his whip — Prado said he merely waved it once to get Barbaro’s attention — the colt took off, quickly passing Keyed Entry, Sinister Minister and Showing Up with a powerful move.

Taking over the lead with a quarter-mile left, Barbaro quickly extended his lead from three to four to 6 lengths, almost effortlessly.

“At that point, I was like, ‘Just don’t fall down,’” Matz said.

The victory was yet another life-changing moment for Matz. In 1989, he survived a United Airlines plane crash and rescued several children, who were in attendance yesterday. In 1996, he won an Olympic silver medal in equestrian. Then he began training thoroughbreds.

Matz’s unorthodox plan of resting Barbaro throughout the Triple Crown Trail, eight weeks before the Florida Derby and five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, was validated.

“He had trained well since he got here from Florida and had never missed anything in his training and we never had to waver one bit from our plan,” Matz said. “It looks like we made the plan. … I was assured that five weeks would not be a problem. There were a lot of good horses out there, but it was his day.”

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