Friday, January 30, 2009

Barbaro's little brother is ready to run

GOOD LUCK!! and have A GREAT DAY!!!

By Claire Novak
Special to ESPN.com

This Saturday at approximately 4:33 p.m. ET, Michael Matz will go through the motions he has performed countless times as the trainer of countless racehorses. He will secure a small leather saddle, check the straps on a glossy bridle, and direct the groom to walk his starter around the paddock at Gulfstream Park. He will tell himself, as he has been saying all along, that this is just another starter, just another race.

He won't be fooling anyone.

On Jan. 31, Matz sends Roy and Gretchen Jackson's Nicanor -- the full brother to 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro -- to the starting gate at Gulfstream Park. It will be the most highly-anticipated debut of an unraced Thoroughbred in recent times, an emotional affair coming just four days after the 2-year anniversary of Barbaro's death. And although hundreds of racehorses will load into dozens of starting stalls across the country that day, for a few moments the eyes of the industry will turn southward toward the young bay colt who carries the hopes and dreams of thousands upon his back.

Barbaro's little brother is ready to run.

It was Jan. 27, 2007, when Roy and Gretchen Jackson made the decision to euthanize Barbaro, the best racehorse they ever owned. The Derby winner lost his battle with debilitating laminitis, the equine disease in which a horse's hoof wall separates from the inner foot, after tragically breaking his left hind leg at the beginning of the Preakness Stakes. Dreams of Triple Crown glory shattered along with that leg. Instead of going on to race again, the fleet-footed runner was eventually laid to rest at Churchill Downs, site of his greatest victory.

The Jacksons mourned his passing, and a world of fans mourned with them. The memories of Barbaro soaring to the Derby finish line, not a single hoof touching the ground, would linger on with fans. He ran with the power and grace of a champion, reminding them of why they held the Sport of Kings close to their hearts. And in the months that followed Barbaro's passing, they knew another like him would never likely appear.

Then came Nicanor. Only a year old when Barbaro's life ended, he quickly became the center of attention, a young prospect upon whom Barbaro's fans could base their affection. In the months that followed, as he grew and traveled to Florida to begin training, as he completed the initial breaking process and moved east to the barn of trainer Michael Matz at Fair Hill in Maryland and began daily forays to the track under the capable supervision of assistant Peter Brette, the racing world watched and waited.

It is difficult enough to bring a Thoroughbred through the rigors of training, let alone make it to the starting gate for a racing debut. Often, in the rush to put miles under a runner's girth, caution is thrown to the wind and horses are pushed to mature beyond their comfort levels. Not so with Nicanor. When the colt progressed slowly in his training, needed extra time to develop, his connections put racing on hold until his 3-year-old season.

"To say that he took a little while is an understatement; he seemed to take forever," said Brette. "But we always wanted him to tell us when he was ready to train and go that step further, and he's at a stage now where he just needs to run and he'll figure things out that way."

Edgar Prado, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode Barbaro to victory in the Kentucky Derby and in his ill-fated Preakness attempt, said he asked for the opportunity to guide Nicanor in his debut. The colt has been doing everything right in the mornings. Now it's time to see if that talent transfers over to the afternoons.

"There's definitely a lot of hope in every first time starter," Prado said. "That's what you're looking for, the horse that runs good and is able to handle the pressure of competition and move forward."

But Nicanor is more than just another new racehorse. He represents a fresh start, the chance for Barbaro's fans to come full-circle and enjoy a racing campaign with a happy ending. That's what his connections are hoping for as well.

"He needs to come out of this race a little more mature than he goes into it," said Brette. "Physically he's done tremendously well but mentally he's sort of like a teenager at the moment. He's gone from thinking everybody loves him and this is a great game to something a little more serious, but he still has that baby side. This race will do wonders for him; after he comes out of it people are going to see a different horse, I'm sure of that."

In the weeks leading up to his debut, Nicanor has been putting it all together. And while Brette is quick to stress that he doesn't compare to Barbaro, there are family characteristics the two brothers definitely share.

"Barbaro always used to have a sort of jig-jog when he finished galloping and was coming back to the barn," he said. "In the past three weeks, this horse has started to do the same thing. He's waking up, figuring things out, he's a little more alive. He sees things more than he used to and he's a bit stronger than he was. He's definitely ready to run."

For those who believe in fate, there are almost ironic coincidences surrounding Nicanor's first start. The race is number eight; Barbaro broke from the eighth stall en route to a Kentucky Derby win. It is part of the undercard for Gulfstream's Donn Handicap; Barbaro won the Holy Bull Stakes on the very same card in 2006. And, of course, Prado will be in the irons for whatever lies ahead. Like all of the young colt's fans, he holds high hopes for Nicanor.

"I think everyone hopes he'll be able to finish what Barbaro started," he said.

Nicanor's Debut: The Field

Gulfstream Park - January 31st, 2009 - Race 8, 4:43 PM
Race Type: $40,000 Maiden Special Weight for 3-year-olds
Distance: One Mile on the dirt
Weight: All runners carry 122 pounds

Post, Horse, Jockey

1 - Unbridled Cardinal, Julien R. Leparoux
2 - Big Flirt, Pascacio Lopez
3 - Andiron, Eibar Coa
4 - Nicanor, Edgar S. Prado
5 - Warrior's Reward, Calvin H. Borel
6 - Allrightsreserved, John R. Velazquez
7 - Boyhood Dream, E.T. Baird
8 - Il Postino, Cornelio H. Velasquez
9 - Trust the Deputy, Alan Garcia
10 - Dubinsky, Javier Castellano
11 - Single Malt, Rene R. Douglas
12 - Audeamus, Elvis Trujillo

Also Eligible - Stayonit, Eibar Coa

Claire Novak has contributed to the Associated Press and The Blood-Horse Magazine, amoung numerous other publications. She currently maintains a blog on the Sport of Kings at NTRA.com.

GOOD LUCK!! and have A GREAT DAY!!!

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