Over the course of the last two years, a pair of Philadelphia area horses have really captivated the hearts of racing fans all over the world.
First, it was Smarty Jones. Then, it was Afleet Alex.
Could Barbaro be next?
The undefeated colt with major area ties is expected to be one of the favorites in the 132nd Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6.
Barbaro, who improved his career record to a perfect five wins in five races last Saturday by capturing the $1 million Grade I Florida Derby -- one of the most prestigious derby prep races in the country for 3-year-olds -- is owned by West Marlborough Township residents Roy and Gretchen Jackson.
The couple runs Lael Stables off Route 926. They have been involved in the horse racing business for over 30 years. They bred Barbaro and have been by his side from the start. Neither has ever attended the Kentucky Derby before in any capacity.
Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer, also resides in West Marlborough Township. He won a silver medal in equestrian at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and carried the U.S. Flag at the closing ceremonies in Atlanta following the games that year. In eight years as a trainer, this will be Matz's first derby horse.
For the local connections, Barbaro's story is almost to good too believe.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet," said Gretchen Jackson. "I'd say it's a dream come true. I look at it as a real gift. It's just a gift that's been given to us and we're extremely lucky."
The Philadelphia area has been the center of the horseracing universe the past two years. In 2004, Smarty Jones nearly became the first since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown. He won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before being chased down in the stretch at the Belmont Stakes. Last year, Afleet Alex finished third at Churchill Downs but bounced back to win the Preakness and Belmont.
What does the future hold for Barbaro?
"I hope things come in three's," said Matz. "This is pretty exciting, though -- that's for sure -- to have a horse that's undefeated going into the Kentucky Derby.
"We think we can win the race. We have a lot of high expectations for this horse. Our plan was to not race him too much before the derby. We wanted him to be fresh, and I don't think the distance is going to be a problem for him. He has tremendous heart and he knows how to win. He's a real strong colt."
In 1989, Matz survived a tragic plane crash and then heroically helped to pull three children safely from the wreckage. It happened aboard United Airlines Flight 232, which crashed in a cornfield in Sioux City, Iowa, and killed 110 passengers. A record-breaking U.S. Equestrian team show jumping rider, Matz has known the Jackson's for about four years.
"They are very good owners," he said. "You feel like they are 100 percent behind you, and that's how a good team works. I feel lucky to have a horse like this in my stable. People have been training their whole lives, and never get this opportunity."
Barbaro was born on April 29, 2003 in Lexington, Ky., and was shipped to Florida as a yearling (1-year-old). He then spent a year at Fair Hill (Md.) before going back to Florida in May of 2005 to train with Matz at Palm Meadows.
"He was a good size foal from the get-go," said Gretchen Jackson. "He was strong, and he continued to improve. He got to be huge by the time he went to Michael Matz. He blossomed and both my husband and I were so pleased to see how well he had grown."
Barbaro began his racing career on Oct. 4, 2005, with an eight-plus length victory on the turf at Delaware Park. His next two wins were also on the turf, at Laurel and Calder, respectively.
On Feb. 4 of this year, Barbaro raced on a dirt track for the first time, and won the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park over a sloppy track.
"That's when we knew he could be very special," said Gretchen Jackson. "The question was always about how he would do on the dirt, and he proved himself that day."
In the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby last week, Barbaro, the 8-5 betting favorite, edged out another Derby horse, Sharp Humor, at the wire, to earn $600,000. His career earnings now stand at $849,000.
"In racing or in breeding horses, our goal was to have a Grade I Stakes winner," said Gretchen Jackson. "For us to have bred him and have him win a Grade I race is amazing.
"We were so excited leading up to [the Florida Derby]. It's sort of like a daughter's wedding or something. When they were coming down the stretch, I was thinking he was going to pull away. I have great faith in the horse. It was pure excitement when he won."
Last fall, the Jackson's declined a $5 million offer for Barbaro.
"We've been trying to breed a good horse forever," said Gretchen Jackson, "and you finally have one. Why would you sell it? The horse means more than money to me."
Barbaro is the buzz of Chester County, and that figures to intensify in the coming weeks.
"Everybody is talking about it. My God, you can't go anywhere. I think it's just unbelievably exciting," said Russell B. Jones Jr., a local blood stock agent from West Marlborough Township.
Jones Jr. found the mother that was used to breed Barbaro. He is neighbors with the Jackson's, and has known them for more than 50 years.
"This is one of the most exciting things that you could have happen for you. It's wonderful, and they deserve it," said Jones Jr. "They've been heavy investors in this industry, and it's nice for them to get rewarded."
For Roy and Gretchen Jackson, even though they've never been to the Kentucky Derby before, they've always dreamed about what it would be like to be at Churchill Downs on that first Saturday in May watching one of their own horses make the Run for the Roses amidst the shadows of the famed Twin Spires.
"We hope every year that this is going to be the one," said Gretchen Jackson. "That's how hard headed we are. I would say that's a common thread between racehorse owners, though. They are forever hopeful.
"I can't wait for the derby. I'm really looking forward to everything. It will be so exciting. We just hope to have a clear race so he has the opportunity to run his best. It sounds cocky to say you expect to win, but I'm going with the idea that we have a pretty good horse."