Before and After Barbaro: What We Can All Learn from Michael Matz's Life in Horses
Fact check me here, but I think Michael Matz might be the only Olympic show jumping medalist who has also trained a Kentucky Derby winner (editor’s note: we checked, he is). Once retired from the top levels of competition, Olympic riders often take on a second career as a clinician or go off to flip young horses, but not Michael. His divergent second career as a Thoroughbred racehorse trainer has led him on some of the most electrifying ups and heartbreaking downs of his life.
Michael represented the United States at three Olympic Games (1976, 1992, 1996) and was a member of the silver-medal winning team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He was also a member of the gold medal winning 1986 World Championship team and won the individual gold medal at the 1981 FEI World Cup™Finals. Following his retirement, Michael was inducted to the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2006.
Retired is a funny word to use in relation to Michael. Though he retired from his show jumping career in 2000, he hasn’t skipped a beat or slowed down since. Throughout his career, Michael competed on various off-track Thoroughbreds and had an affinity for turning them into stars.
Shortly before he officially retired from show jumping, he began training a string of racehorses. After he failed to make the 2000 Olympic team, he turned to where he knew he could conquer – on the racetrack. To win an Olympic medal is a feat on its own, but then to go on to be so fabulously competitive in a completely different sport is pure magic.
Michael brought his meticulous care, innovative training, and disciplined eye for horses from the show ring to the track. The long days didn’t bother him, and he quickly found his rhythm in the racing industry.
The famous bay Barbaro is arguably one of the most impactful horses on Michael’s career and launched his name into the limelight in the racing industry. In seven starts the young superstar triumphed with six wins, including the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Tragically, he broke his leg in the Preakness Stakes and after months of rehabilitation was euthanized due to a declining quality of life. Michael, racing fans, and the equestrian world alike were shocked and saddened by the loss.
In 2012, Michael struck it big again winning the final leg of the Triple Crown – the Belmont Stakes – with the bay colt Union Rags. The colt retired shortly after having earned over $1.7 million and now stands at stud at Lane’s End farm in Lexington, Ky. with a stud fee of $60,000.
Michael and Rhum IV at the 1996 Olympic Games. Photo by Charles Mann.
To this day, Michael continues to remain highly competitive throughout the East Coast Thoroughbred racing world. He’s active in various circuits and continues to train at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md.
As a fan of both horse racing and show jumping, comparing the two might seem quip. But, to help both sports advance for the athletes, regulations, and bringing in new fans, drawing comparisons are essential to the process. Though soft spoken, Michael spoke about both sports with a passion, and he frequently paused to develop his word choice that would encompass the true meaning of what he was feeling. During this no nonsense conversation, he explained that two drastically different sports are comparable in three key areas.
Times have changed, there’s no doubting that. What's the biggest change in show jumping that Michael has seen since his competitive days?
While the cost of participating as a equestrian has long been labeled as a aristocratic sport, more recently its exclusivity has exacerbated that. In Michael’s day, there were vast sponsorships that helped support a great deal of young riders, whereas today more riders support themselves financially.
“I’m alarmed at some of the bits I see riders using in the show jumping ring. I just don’t remember all that stuff, curb chains and hackamore ‘bits’ – we never had all that stuff.”
“You have the best horses going to your better riders and the better horses mostly going to the people who can afford them,” he says. “It is a little hard right now to make it in the show horse business because unless you stumble across one, the horses are so expensive. I doubt in this day and age if I was riding – I don’t know if I would have done as well. I’m just looking at it from the outside though, I see it through my children riding and maybe I am completely wrong.”
As we see entrance into show jumping becoming increasingly more competitive, we also see the racing world mimic its exclusivity among trainers, riders, and owners. “You have a certain select group of trainers that have a couple hundred horses. I think that the owners look at what the statistics are and what trainers’ win percentages are, and that’s what they go by.”
This young show jumper isn't rich and he's not the trainer's kid, but he's not going to let that stop him from trying to go pro.
When Michael was competing in show jumping, there were fewer people riding at the highest levels. Today, there is a desperation to advance to the top as quickly as possible, for both horses and riders, even if that means leaving holes in your training. Racing faces a similar problem, with some owners wanting to participate among the best at all costs.
“In racing it seems like owners are continually asking the question, ‘what have you done for me?’ I think it’s hard when the big trainers have one or two hundred horses,” Michael says. “For me it is hard to take care of that many horses and be so hands on with them.”
An early morning workout at Fair Hill Training Center. Photo by Charles Mann.
Don’t Go For The Quick Fix
Equipment is a popular topic of discussion today, not only in the jumper ring, but on the racetrack as well. Interestingly, riders are beginning to look at other disciplines for their tack options in an attempt to get creative. For example, in the jumper ring you now might notice horses sporting blinker attachments on their bridles or shadow rolls on their nosebands, and eventers are using jockey whips and riding in skull caps.
“I’m alarmed at some of the bits I see riders using in the show jumping ring. I just don’t remember all that stuff, curb chains and hackamore ‘bits’ – we never had all that stuff,” he says. “Even with the racehorses I might put some blinkers on, but nothing fancy. Usually we try to run our horses in a snaffle or a ring bit to keep it as plain as possible. We try to be as minimal as we can.”
The goal in all disciplines is to have the horse balanced and strong enough to do the job. It is better to achieve this through careful training and conditioning than with gadgets that create a false balance and give the illusion of correctness. To help improve the balance for his racehorses, Michael returns to his roots and does pole work whenever the weather doesn’t permit them to work outside.
“When we shedrow the horses I always throw a couple rails out,” Michael says. “It is good for the horses to have something to look at. It’s interesting watching the riders cope with the horses and how the horses cope with the rail on the ground. When they finally get into a nice rhythm they can do it perfectly fine.”
“Good horses make good riders and good horses make good trainers.”
The exercise riders who do this kind of training work with the horses are just as important as the jockeys that ride them during their races. For Michael, a predicament that he sees currently in racing and also in the show world is the lack of competency with exercise riders. Michael insists on total dedication from his riders and tries to match the right jockey with the right horse.
“We don’t have the [exercise] riders that once were and I think a lot of people will agree with me on that,” Michael says bluntly. “There is nobody really teaching the exercise riders to ride these horses and it’s just getting harder to find good riders. The jockeys just want to breeze the horses, they don’t want to do the other part.”
Create a Level Playing Field
Ambiguity in rules and with the governing organizations in each respective sport has left Michael with a bitter taste. In horse racing, each state delegates their own rules. Michael is based in Maryland but races all over the country. He’s frustrated by the inconsistency of rules across differing states. For instance, in one state you might not be able to give a certain medication to a horse 48 hours before a race, but in the neighboring state it could be 24 hours before a race.
“The biggest thing with racing right now is that there needs to be uniform rules,” Michael says. “I don’t care what the rules are, just make them consistent with everyone else. When the starting gate opens, we all want to start at a level playing field. That’s the thing that needs to be done with racing right now.”
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Show jumping, on the other hand, is a little different, but with similar issues regarding rules and sensitivity. False positives have created confusion and worry among riders who are looking to best treat their horses.
“Some of the rules that they have with the FEI and some of the tests are so sensitive that any little thing will come up,” Michael says. “Is it really helping the horse even if it comes up positive? I think in both instances, regulations need to have a little more common sense and those governing need to not let their egos get involved. The person that puts the best product out is the one that should win."
Photo by Sara Gordon.
But what it truly comes down to for Michael is, “whether you are a rider or a trainer, good horses make good riders and good horses make good trainers. You’ve got to find a way to get those horses to you. Sometimes the horse find its way to you, but you have to have some kind of luck into it.”
A slow horse is a slow horse and a some horses just are never going to be able to jump a 1.60 meter grand prix course. A good horseman will not only recognize a horse’s limitations and heed them, he or she will also take the time to consider how a horse feels physically and how that may be affecting his performance. In Michael’s opinion, that’s the difference between a good horseman and a great one.
“If a horse is slow, you aren’t going to make it into a Kentucky Derby winner no matter who’s training it,” Michael says. “There has to be some ability in the horse to get to the top level. Sometimes it just takes some time and sometimes there is a reason why the horse isn’t running well.”
Being a great horseman is the underlying goal for Michael no matter what type of horse he’s working with – it’s a quality he hopes to instill in the next generation. Whether show jumping or racing, Michael’s love for the horse is at the heart of everything he does, and that’s a passion that he’ll never retire.
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Feature photo by Tod Marks Photography.