Union Rags takes part in a exercise run at Churchill Downs on Thursday. Trainer… (Rob Carr / Getty Images )
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Michael Matz has had his share of life-altering moments. He was a three-time Olympian and carried the flag in the closing ceremony in Atlanta. He saved the lives of four young children after a plane crash in Iowa. And he was the trainer who watched over the life and death of Barbaro, perhaps the most beloved thoroughbred of this century.
Saturday he'll send Union Rags from the No. 4 post as the second favorite in the 138th Kentucky Derby. Bob Baffert's Bodemesiter is the top choice at 4-1 odds; Union Rags is 9-2.
Union Rags was thought to be the clear Derby favorite before an unfortunate ride led to a third-place finish in the Florida Derby.
But, the ride that really defined Matz was that of United Flight 232 in 1989, which ended in a cornfield in Sioux City with 110 dead. Matz was returning from judging a horse show in Hawaii when he and fiancee D.D. Alexander missed their connection and they ended up on Flight 232, which was headed for Chicago.
The plane suffered engine failure and the pilot brought it down with virtually no control over the hydraulics. Matz was sitting near three young children and told them to hold his belt and follow him as he led them through the smoke and debris out a gaping hole in the fuselage.
After he was outside the plane, Matz and another passenger heard a baby crying and reentered the wreckage to rescue an 11-month-old girl. There were 296 people on board.
More than two decades later, Matz, 61, still doesn't like to talk about the flight or his actions. "Nobody wants to go through that, that's for sure," he said. "It's something that happened and we were lucky enough to survive. . . . It was a long time ago, so I try not to look back at it."
Matz did concede that Alexander, whom he married shortly after the accident, still stays in touch with the three children.
"They're all grown up now," he said. "They came the last time to the Derby when Barbaro was there. . . . But my wife keeps up with them and we keep up with their parents too."
Who Matz doesn't keep up with anymore is Roy and Gretchen Jackson, who owned Barbaro and stabled most of their horses with Matz until last July, when they dropped him after 10 years.
"I was just grateful for the Jacksons that I had Barbaro," Matz said. "It did hurt an awful lot when I didn't know why I was let go. But that's over with."
The Jacksons could not be reached for comment.
Barbaro was undefeated going into the 2006 Kentucky Derby and raised hopes that he could be a Triple Crown winner when he won by 61/2 lengths, the largest margin since 1946. He entered the Preakness as America's favorite but shattered his leg shortly after the start of the race.
What followed was an intense and public effort to save his life. Barbaro endured many surgeries and was finally euthanized eight months later.
"He captured a lot of people's hearts," Matz said. "He was an undefeated horse. Every time we ran him he won, except the time he got hurt. In the racing community, I thought he brought a lot of people together. I even think when he got hurt, he brought even more people together."
Comparisons between Barbaro and Union Rags, though a bit of a stretch at this point, have been circulating for weeks.
"I've had one great horse in Barbaro and I think I might have a second one," Matz said. "It's a great opportunity."
No matter how great Union Rags may be, it takes luck to win the Derby. There should be a lot of speed in the race, meaning that as the early leaders slow, Union Rags could be in a good position coming from just off the pace.
"All I want for the Kentucky Derby is to have Union Rags in a position to win and see if we can win," said jockey Julien Leparoux, who received some criticism for his ride in the Florida Derby. "We definitely have a good chance."
Leparoux, like Matz, was an equestrian show jumper. He started when he was 11 but quit when he turned 18 to ride thoroughbreds.
Matz, however, was much more accomplished, a six-time U.S. national champion and a silver medalist in the team jumping competition at the Atlanta Olympic Games. Because of his heroics seven years earlier, he was chosen to carry the flag in the closing ceremony.
Matz, though, isn't much for ceremonies or accolades. If Union Rags wins on Saturday, look for Matz to be the most reserved one in the winner's circle.