Michael Matz has packed a lifetime of accomplishments into his 55 years. The three-time Olympic equestrian turned into a hero and saved lives when a plane he was on crashed in 1989. He is now chasing one of horse racing's greatest achievements, training a horse that could win the Kentucky Derby.
This Saturday Michael Matz's undefeated three-year-old bay colt "Barbaro" will join the so-called "Run for the Roses" as he attempts to win the 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
But the path that led Matz to this point started over 40 years ago in the small town of Shillington, Pennsylvania when a neighbor invited him to ride a horse. Though he had never been on a horse before, Matz soon grew to love the sport. He started as a groom and worked his way up. Matz began competing as a show jumper in Europe in 1973, and just three years later made the U.S Olympic team for the 1976 Games in Montreal.
But fate stepped in in 1989. Matz and his then-fiancee, DD Alexander were flying to Philadelphia when the plane they were on crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people. They both survived, and Matz led three children to safety and then went back into the burning wreckage and rescued an 11-month old girl.
"We were lucky to survive it and go on from there. It has been 17 years now and we try to just go on," he said.
Michael Matz made the Olympic equestrian team again in 1992 and 1996. At the 1996 Atlanta Games he won a silver medal in the team event and was honored by being selected to carry the American flag at the closing ceremonies. Matz said his harrowing experience of surviving a plane crash has made him more appreciative of his Olympic success.
"You just don't take every little thing for granted anymore," he said. "You enjoy everything you can. And yeah, it was a great moment in my riding career and in my life."
Michael Matz started training horses part-time eight years ago. But after failing to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2000 Games in Sydney, he decided to devote himself to it fulltime. Prior to Barbaro, Matz's biggest success was training 2004 Arlington Million winner "Kicken Kris."
Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, were impressed after seeing Matz ride at shows in Pennsylvania. They started sending horses to Matz to train with the aim of having one good enough to race in the Kentucky Derby.
"You try to get there, then you try to win the Olympic Games or be on a winning team," he added. "And you know, this is what we hope every year. This is the first time we have had a horse that even followed the Derby trail. You know, it is just an exciting time whenever you have a horse that has won five straight [races] and is going to the Derby undefeated, let alone just have a horse that can go in the Derby."
That Barbaro is considered one of the favorites for Saturday's Kentucky Derby is no surprise to Michael Matz. As he explains it: "People are looking for a superstar. He has that air about him."