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A New Generation Flying the Flag for Olympian Matz

Sponsored by the NTRA

Michael Matz

Michael Matz

Mathea Kelley

Michael Matz celebrated this past Fourth of July by watching his son, Alex, win his first major show jumping competition in the $100,000 Richard M. Feldman Grand Prix in Lake Placid, N.Y. The father's smile Matz displayed that day for the winning photograph rivaled the one he wore after winning the 2006 Kentucky Derby (G1) with Barbaro. One week later, Alex completed a double at the Lake Placid event by winning the $100,000 Great American Insurance Group Grand Prix.

In other action on July 11, Michael Matz sent out the 4-year-old Blame  gelding Beacon Hill to take an allowance race at Pimlico Race Course for Runnymoore Racing. First place was worth $28,800, compared to the $30,000 won by Alex Matz and his mount, Cashew CR, in each of the Lake Placid events. Dad had to chuckle at the contrast.

"I'm not sure what that means, but I'm awfully proud of Alex," said Matz, who was a six-time national show jumping champion and a member of three U.S. Equestrian Olympic teams. "I was very lucky to be a part of that world for a number of years."

This year, in fact, marks the 25th anniversary of the Games of the XXVI Olympiad held in Atlanta, Ga., during which Matz and his three teammates—Anne Kursinski, Peter Leone, and Leslie Burr-Howard—surprised the oddsmakers by winning the silver medal in show jumping. That also was the Olympics of the Magnificent Seven, the name given the women's gymnastics squad that brought the U.S. its first team gold medal, as well as the second coming of the Dream Team in men's basketball, an all-star array that included Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, and Shaquille O'Neal.

Michael Matz competes at the 1996 Olympic Games
Photo: Shawn Hamilton
Michael Matz competes at the 1996 Olympic Games

Despite being surrounded by such intimidating star power, Matz was chosen to carry the flag and lead the more than 600 members of the U.S. team as they entered Centennial Olympic Stadium for the closing ceremonies. He was, and still is, floored by the honor.

"It was all such a special experience, especially being in Atlanta," Matz said. "My wife, D.D., was with me, and eight months pregnant with Alex at the time."

In 1996, the task of carrying the flag into the closing ceremony was a budding tradition. The practice began only at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where the mixed-race fencing ace Peter Westbrook of New Jersey, a bronze medalist in 1984, was given the honor for the U.S. The athlete is chosen by representatives of each Olympic sport.

"When Robert Dover, our equestrian team captain, called to tell me I was carrying the flag in the closing ceremonies, I told him to stop messing around," Matz said. "It wasn't funny to make a joke like that."

Dover would not reveal his sales pitch, but he did share the reaction of a selection committee member when informed it was the 20th anniversary of the first Games in which Matz was part of the U.S. Equestrian Team.

"According to Dover, the fellow said, 'Jesus, this guy's been around here for 20 years? He ain't gonna last much longer. We'd better vote for him,'" said Matz. He was 45 at the time.

Since the U.S. was the host team, the athletes entered last, which meant Matz hoisted the flag for a long, long time.

"At that point I was on cloud nine," he said. "It could have weighed 300 pounds and I wouldn't have noticed. I do remember we followed Zimbabwe, and one of their guys was moaning and groaning. When I asked him if he was okay, he said, 'I just finished the marathon.'"

His name was Tendai Chimusasa, who finished 13th of the 124 marathon runners that day, less than four seconds behind the gold medalist. He had carried his nation's flag in the opening ceremony.

Barbaro and Michael Matz
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Michael Matz with Barbaro

Matz is that rare individual who has made history on both sides of a career divide. He began training Thoroughbreds in 1999, and since then, the Matz list of accomplishments has been replete with historic moments, many of them wrapped in unforgettable drama.

Barbaro is remembered as much for his doomed struggle for survival after his injury in the Preakness Stakes (G1) as for his comprehensive Derby triumph. Later in 2006, Round Pond had to share her victory for Matz in the Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) with the grim headlines covering the serious injury suffered by Fleet Indian and the fatal breakdown of Pine Island, the two race favorites. Kicken Kris landed Matz in the winner's circle after the 2004 Arlington Million (G1T), but not before the first-place finisher, Powerscourt, was disqualified for interference. And even though the hard-fought score of Union Rags  over Paynter  in the 2012 Belmont Stakes (G1) was a career defining moment for the trainer, there always will linger the "what if" factor, because Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another  had been scratched on the eve of the race.

Union Rags wins the 2012 Belmont Stakes
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Union Rags (right) wins the 2012 Belmont Stakes

It has been a quiet couple of seasons for the Matz stable, based at the Fair Hill Training Center in northern Maryland. He is on pace to have his fewest number of starters since he began training, and Beacon Hill was only his third win of 2021. Clearly, there is no one about to feel sorry for someone who has been living such a rich and rewarding life. But the fact that Matz is low on viable inventory offers a vivid example of proven talent squandered in the face of a trend that puts more and more horses in fewer and fewer hands.

"I train primarily for breeders, and I always seem to have a lot of fillies, so things can get slow," Matz said. "I have some nice 2-year-olds coming along, though, and next spring there will be another group, hopefully with a few more colts. Hope always springs eternal."

Matz will be watching as the U.S. jumping team takes the field beginning Monday, Aug. 2, in Tokyo. He likes their chances to medal in a field with several contenders. As for the trainer's ongoing emotional attachment to the Games, the future is getting very close to right now for Alex Matz. The most recent father-son Olympians to represent the United States were the sailors William Earl Buchan and William Carl Buchan, who won gold medals in 1984 in different events.

"If we get the right horses, maybe he'll have a chance," Michael said. "Then he'd get to have the same feeling that I had. Wouldn't that be fun?"