LEXINGTON, Ky. -- People are still bringing trainer Michael Matz photos of his late, 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, asking him for autographs. Almost every day someone asks him about Barbaro's little brother, Nicanor, who is in Ocala, Fla., being broken and will return to Matz late this month for his 2-year-old season.
And Matz said yesterday that he still reflects on the horse that won so many hearts.
"There was never a doubt about Barbaro's ability to go the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles," Matz said. "And when he came back from that race, his skin was just warm. It hadn't taken anything out of him.
"It's such a shame that we didn't get to see how good he really was."
Barbaro became the nation's horse after breaking down in the Preakness and then fighting eight months to overcome a shattered leg and complications of laminitis, an inflammation that eventually led to his death.
But this spring, as Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, made the determination to have Barbaro buried at Churchill Downs, Matz found himself feeling excited about another horse - Visionaire - who is on track to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Visionaire is by Grand Slam out of Scarlet Tango. The pleasant chestnut "aims to please" but lacks, perhaps, the fire of Barbaro, Matz said.
Tomorrow he will break from the far outside of the 12-horse field in the Grade I, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, and Matz is eager to gauge his progress.
In his first effort to go two turns, Visionaire ran third in the Grade III Risen Star in February, behind the winning Pyro, who is the favorite here.
"I know he has improved," Matz said. "He's doing well right now, and I hope he doesn't prove me wrong. He was beaten 2 3/4 lengths by Pyro in the Risen Star. Has he improved that much since then? We'll see."
Barbaro was always a workhorse, eager to go to the training track in the morning and do his job to the fullest. Visionaire is more laid-back, doing just what he has to do. Matz said he is a "delight to train" but that he has yet to figure out whether he is an overachiever or a horse with a lot of untapped talent.
But Matz, who is based at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, said he can't afford to live in the past. It's a fast-paced, competitive business. Every trainer is looking for the next Derby winner.
"Every trainer wishes every year to go to or go back to the Derby," he said. "I was real fortunate to have a horse like Barbaro. I was lucky enough to have one. And that one set the standard pretty high."
Churchill Downs and the owners of Barbaro plan to unveil a rendering of the bronze statue that will honor the late 2006 Kentucky Derby champion and the name of the artist chosen to create it during the week leading up to the May 3 Derby.
Owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson announced in January that Barbaro will be buried at the track. Barbaro is expected to be interred in 2009, when the statue is complete.