For Barbaro, there’s no place like home


ELKTON, Md. (AP) – Surrounded by a thick layer of tall trees and a plush carpet of the buttercups he so loves to munch, Barbaro frolicked in his paddock under a clear sky Wednesday.

The Fair Hill Training Center, located deep in the hills of this rural community, is an ideal home for the Kentucky Derby winner. In fact, Barbaro’s handlers believe this serene setting has played a major role in the success of their unbeaten horse.

It’s also why trainer Michael Matz has 50 horses here.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is keep the horses as happy as possible. If the horses are happy, they’re going to do for us what we ask them to do,” Matz said. “If they’re not happy, they don’t want to go to the training track and don’t want to train. The big thing is try to keep a sound, happy horse.”

Sort of like Barbaro, who will seek to keep his Triple Crown hopes alive on May 20 in the Preakness.

“You saw him out in the paddock today. He looked very happy out there,” Matz said. “He’s just an amazing horse. Four days ago he was running in front of 150,000 people, and today he could go out in the paddock and eat grass and be a horse. He’s used to doing it. It doesn’t suit everybody, but it suits him.”

When he’s not chomping on grass or flowers, Barbaro has plenty of room to trot or gallop. When it’s time to go to the stable, the 3-year-old dark bay colt settles into a 12-by-12 stall within a barn that has sliding windows, skylights, three ornamental steeples and a satellite dish.

Barbaro came to Fair Hill from Florida about a year ago, and it wasn’t long before he made himself right at home.

“Who wouldn’t like Fair Hill?” said Peter Brette, Matz’s assistant. “You come from Churchill Downs or Lexington and you get here, where it’s quiet and he can go in the paddock. It’s an absolutely beautiful place to train a racehorse.”

It’s so gorgeous that no one would blame Matz for waiting as long as possible before sending his star to rundown Pimlico, where the colt would be crowded in a small barn and surrounded by hundreds of reporters. Matz said he wasn’t sure when Barbaro would be sent to the track, which is about 60 miles from Fair Hill.

Matz stables 15 horses at nearby Delaware Park, but he prefers the crisp country air and the amenities of Fair Hill.

“It’s a beautiful facility,” Matz said. “You have over 2,000 acres to ride cross country, they have paddocks you can turn out, three racetracks you can train on, and nobody’s telling you that you have to be off the track by 10 o’clock in the morning. You can take your time with your horses.

“Plus, you don’t have a racing secretary saying you have to run in this race or you’re not going to get any stalls, or somebody’s going to kick you out. There are so many advantages to it, it’s just great for the horses.”

Fair Hill offers a trainer the option of taking his horse on tracks consisting of dirt, wood chips or turf. Or, a trainer can let his horse graze over thick grass as far as the eye can see.

Just as important, there’s never any pressure to adhere to a timetable set by track personnel.

“You can just do so many things,” Matz said. “I like the part that it’s not as busy as a racetrack. It’s a little quieter here, and I think it’s good for the horses.”

Fair Hill is located within a vast natural resources area that offers deer hunting, trout fishing and hiking trails. It’s usually a quiet community, but the place has been buzzing this week.

“It’s a pretty exciting time for people at Fair Hill,” Brette said. “Anywhere you go, any shop you go in, that’s all the people are talking about. We’ve had a Kentucky Derby winner, so let’s enjoy it.”

AP-ES-05-10-06 1601EDT