Racing: Fairytale contenders stir Kentucky fervour

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you want to measure the divisions of American society, go to Churchill Downs. And if you want to sample its most pristine ideals, go to Churchill Downs.

On the one hand, the communal blocks on the backstretch accommodate not only priceless thoroughbreds, owned by some of the richest men in the land, but also the indigent families of Hispanic labourers. Equally, the 132nd Kentucky Derby on Saturday will once again nourish faith in the Utopia so meanly tarnished in other walks of American life.

Year after year, Louisville mixes inspiring flavours from this greatest of melting pots, and yields some shameless fairytale. It continues to confound Sheikh Mohammed, for instance, instead favouring the old schoolmates who bought Funny Cide over a reunion barbecue and hired a yellow school bus to see him win three years ago.

This time round, its brazen theme is Home of the Brave. For a start, the favourite, Brother Derek, is trained from a wheelchair by Dan Hendricks, paralysed in a motocross accident two years ago. Hendricks is a monumental stoic. "I did it to myself, it happened, and here I am," he says. "I can't dwell on it. I have before, and it doesn't help me. I figured that out. The importance of a horse race compared to fighting in Iraq, it puts things in their place."

While Hendricks owes his pragmatism to the daily ebb and flow of hardship in his own life, the sense of perspective achieved by Michael Matz can be traced to a single, fleeting test. The trainer of Barbaro is excelling for a second time as a horseman, having won an Olympic silver in show-jumping and carried the national flag at the closing ceremony at Atlanta in 1996. But the defining moment of his life came as a passenger on a flight from Denver to Chicago seven summers previously.

An engine blew, the hydraulics failed, and for 40 minutes the pilot circled, losing fuel. Matz was alongside two unaccompanied children - Melissa and Travis Roth, respectively 12 and 9 at the time - and devoted himself to distracting and reassuring them. Oblivious to the tension and praying, they chatted and played cards with Matz.

Then the pilot counted down to a forced landing in an Iowa cornfield. The plane broke up, killing 111 of the 296 on board. The middle section twisted round, leaving them hanging upside down from his seatbelt. Matz unbuckled and fell on to the ceiling.

His fiancee was six rows ahead, but his priority remained Melissa and Travis. They held on to his belt and he led them through the thick smoke, the tangled wires, the pushing and the panic. He helped them out, told them to hold hands, to keep running, not to look round. Flames were taking hold of the wreckage, and he feared an explosion. But he had heard a crying baby and went back inside. He found an 11-month-old girl in a luggage bin, and carried her to safety.

All this time he had not seen his fiancée. Eventually he saw a rescue vehicle rush by. There she was, with Travis and Melissa and their older brother, Jody. Matz caught up with them, and managed to track down their mother by telephone, three hours after she had learned of the crash. Matz and his fiancee took the children to a nurse's house, barricading them against trauma. "He allowed us to keep our innocence," Melissa said later.

The Roths will be at Churchill Downs on Saturday, rooting for Matz and his wife. "We were just the ones fortunate enough to be near them," Jody told a local newspaper. "Maybe he was rewarded for his good deeds by training such a wonderful horse."

More people in Louisville want to talk to Matz about his heroism than his unbeaten horse, but he politely steers them the other way.

Now 55, he has already won an Arlington Million - with Kicken Kris in 2004 - during just six years as a trainer, and he is giving Barbaro an unconventionally light preparation. When they persist, he shrugs. "Nobody knows how you react in situations like that," he says. "You don't practice anything like that. I guess I would just hope somebody would do the same for my children."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Golden Dixie

(Kempton 7.00)

NB: Bollin Derek

(Pontefract 4.20)