LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A hero and his unbeaten horse won the Kentucky Derby.
A hard-charging Barbaro galloped into the lead at the top of the stretch and won by a stunning 6 1-2 lengths Saturday, giving trainer Michael Matz his first Derby victory and jockey Edgar Prado his first winning ride.
Matz' joyous day came nearly 17 years after he led three children to safety within minutes after United Airlines flight 232 from Denver to Chicago cartwheeled down a runway, caught fire and skidded to a stop in an Iowa cornfield.
The two brothers and their sister, now grown, joined Matz in the grandstand at Churchill Downs, where they cheered the strapping bay colt onto his sixth consecutive win.
Given a masterful ride by Prado, Barbaro beat a full field of 20 3-year-olds — considered one of the toughest in years.
With Sinister Minister and Keyed Entry setting the pace, Barbaro settled in right behind after stumbling briefly at the start. He made his move around the far turn, just as he had in winning his first five races.
The Florida Derby winner, making his first start in five weeks, had plenty left in the tank to hold off Bluegrass Cat and helped Prado into the winner's circle on his seventh try.
After the horse righted himself, Prado said, "I was very confident and it was just a matter of time when I could turn him loose. And when I turned him loose, he was like a rocket.
"I didn't have any doubt about the kind of horse he is."
Steppenwolfer was third, and there was a dead heat for fourth between Brother Derek and Jazil.
Barbaro became the sixth undefeated winner, following Smarty Jones in 2004.
Trainer Bob Baffert had three horses in the field, but failed in his attempt to win his fourth Derby: Point Determined was ninth, Sinister Minister was 16th and Bob and John was 17th.
Sent off as the 6-1 second choice by the crowd of 157,536 — the second largest in Derby history — Barbaro covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.36, well off Secretariat's record of 1:59 2/5 in 1973.
The margin of victory was the largest since Assault won by eight lengths in 1946.
The son of Dynaformer, owned by Gretchen and Roy Jackson's Lael Farm, returned $14.20, $8 and $6. Bluegrass Cat, trained by Todd Pletcher, returned $28.40 and $15.40. Steppenwolfer paid $7.80 to show.
Sweetnorthernsaint, the surprise 5-1 favorite, finished seventh. Lawyer Ron was 12th.
If Barbaro goes on to win the Preakness in two weeks, the stage would be set for a fourth Triple Crown try in the past five years at the Belmont Stakes on June 10. War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in '03 and Smarty Jones in '04 each won the Derby and Preakness, but came up short in the last race.
"He's a very nice horse," Prado said, "and hopefully we can win a Triple Crown."
The 55-year-old Matz was an equestrian show jumping superstar for years before turning to training, competing in three Olympics between 1976 and 1996. He was chosen to carry the U.S. flag at the closing ceremony in Atlanta and considered the honor one of his greatest moments.
Now he has another.
Matz left the sport in 2000 as show jumping's all-time money leader with $1.7 million, and was inducted into show jumping's Hall of Fame on April 1 — the same day Barbaro won the Florida Derby.
By 2000, he turned to thoroughbreds full time, and his best horses until Barbaro came along was Kicken Kris, who won the Arlington Million in 2004.
With Barbaro, he took an unconventional route to his first Derby. The colt won the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 4 in his first start on the dirt. It wasn't until eight weeks later that the colt raced again, winning the Florida Derby.
With the win, Barbaro became the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win without a prep race four or more weeks before the Derby.
Matz also became the fourth straight first-time Derby trainer to win the race, following John Shirreffs with Giacomo, John Servis with Smarty Jones and Barclay Tagg with Funny Cide.
"It's a great, great, great feeling," Matz said.
As he watched his colt coming down the stretch, the trainer said he had one thought: "Don't fall down."'
Showing Up was sixth, followed by Sweetnorthernsaint, Deputy Glitters, Point Determined, Seaside Retreat, Storm Treasure, Lawyer Ron, Cause to Believe, Flashy Bull, Private Vow, Sinister Minister, Bob and John, A.P. Warrior, Sharp Humor and Keyed Entry.
All week, Matz patiently answered questions about the crash of the DC-10 that killed 111 of the 296 passengers and crew members.
Matz led the two brothers and their sister, who were traveling without their parents, away from the burning wreckage. D.D. Alexander, Matz's fiancee at the time and now his wife, also survived and the two stayed with the children until their parents arrived.
"I think Michael is one of those rare people who does amazing things and doesn't showboat or take a lot of credit," Melissa Radcliffe, now 29 and one of the children Matz saved, said earlier this week. "In the plane crash, we knew him but we had no idea he was an Olympic equestrian rider. He said he was just a guy who likes horses."'
Barbaro earned $1,453,200 to boost his career earnings to $2,302,200.
"I thought it was the best race I've ever seen," Gretchen Jackson said. Earlier in the day, George Washington, a 3-year-old bred by the Jacksons won the 2,000 Guineas race in England.
Barbaro began his career on the turf, winning an allowance race at Delaware Park and then taking the Laurel Futurity before being shipped to Florida. He won the Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1 before his wins in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby.
"This is a very excellent horse," Prado said. "All the time he showed me the quality horse he is. ... Dreams come true."